Category Archives: indie comedies

Film Fest: A Movie About Making Movies

As you can probably tell from the title, Film Fest is one of those meta exercises, an indie film destined for film festivals about an indie film premiering at a film festival. The main difference is that Film Fest actually premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 2020, whereas the fictional film is premiering at an obscure film festival in an unnamed (though scenic) location in the mountains.

Directed by Marshall Cook, Film Fest follows the struggles of indie director Logan Clark (Matt Cook). In the first scene, he is desperately pitching his finished movie, appropriately named Unknown Unknowns at a party where he’s working as a server. He’s not so gently rebuffed by an agent while his boss threatens to fire him.

The film’s producer, Alex Davis (Diona Reasonover) reveals that there’s a film festival that actually wants to premier Unknown Unknowns. The catch (the first of many, as it turns out) is that it’s an obscure festival called Hollywylde that no one has heard of. Though at first ready to refuse and wait for something better, Logan reluctantly goes along for the ride. He, Alex, their cinematographer (Laird Macintosh) who affects a fake Swedish accent, and PA make the journey to try their luck. Logan quickly goes from feeling the whole thing is beneath him to desperately wanting to come away a winner.

Film Fest is a spoof and insider’s look at the pretensions and often petty competitiveness of film festivals, where unknown directors desperately want to break through and outshine their peers. The fictional Hollywylde Festival, of course, is shadier and sketchier than even your average obscure film festival. It turns out that every entrant in the festival has been nominated for all the top awards. The festival’s creator is a bombastic character in a cowboy hat named Montgomery Nash (Will Sasso) who privately tells every participant that their film is his favorite.

Logan is portrayed as just as opportunistic and prone to compromising his values as anyone else. There’s a scene where Logan and Alex pitch their movie to agents and are immediately shot down because they lack a clear pigeonhole or star that will make it a predictable hit. Film Fest is an interesting and funny look at the world of independent filmmaking and how only the most dedicated will persevere in the face of such long odds.

Film Fest is currently streaming on Amazon Prime as well as YouTube.

All My Friends Hate Me

All My Friends Hate Me, currently streaming on Hulu, is a British dark comedy-drama directed by Andrew Gaynord. Tom Stourton, who is also a co-writer, stars as Pete, a young man preparing to meet up with old college friends for his 31st birthday. His journey to the countryside, where his old friend George has a massive estate, is fraught with unease. He approaches a dog on a chain and an apparently abandoned car, only to be chased by a homeless man. An elderly local whom he approaches for directions mocks him. When he arrives at the house, it is deserted. When his friends finally arrive, one even suggests that Pete’s invitation had been a joke. So, early on, Pete’s position is uncertain and he is wondering if his old friends really want him there at all.

All My Friends Hate Me is a fascinating study of group dynamics, insecurity, and the lingering British class system. It’s one of the most interesting films I’ve seen recently, and often uncomfortable to watch. The atmosphere borders on the horror genre, which is no accident, even though most (though not all) of the violence is verbal and psychological.

Pete’s history with these people is a little unclear, especially as his and their recollections often diverge. He has a romantic history with Claire (Antonia Clarke), something his fiance Sonia (Charly Clive) knows about. To complicate things, Sonia isn’t due to arrive at the house until a day later. The tension between Pete and Claire is exacerbated by the possibility that Claire is unstable and allegedly tried to kill herself after breaking up with Pete. Or is this just something the others are telling Pete to make him feel guilty?

Much of the tension is between Pete and Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who is supposedly an outsider that Pete’s ex-college friends found in a bar. However, Harry, who is loud and borderline aggressive, seems to have an unexplained hostility towards Pete. Pete also feels like he vaguely recognizes Harry. The others, meanwhile, seem oblivious to Harry’s increasingly unhinged antics.

It’s hard to readily identify heroes and villains in this film. Although Pete may be the victim, it’s also clear that he hasn’t made any effort to stay in touch over the last decade. Furthermore, his constant references to his volunteer work sound glib and self-important.

One interpretation of All My Friends Hate Me is that the entire group are privileged, atavistic characters from a bygone era. The museum-like mansion full of antique portraits is one clue. Another is a traditional pheasant hunt that the others insist Pete take part in, despite his obvious discomfort around guns and hunting.

It would be hard to reveal spoilers, as nothing very definitive happens. The audience is challenged to interpret the events, and Pete’s perceptions, in their own way. This would be an interesting film to watch a second time, though I’m not sure that even repeated viewings would net any definite conclusions.

If you were to analyze the film scene by scene, it wouldn’t be hard to poke some holes in it, especially if you want to stick with the interpretation that Pete is simply being overly sensitive or even paranoid. For example, on their way from the house to a pub, the group drives away, leaving Pete to walk. At best, his friends have a sense of humor that borders on the sadistic.

All My Friends Hate Me, with its emphasis on dialog and emotional outbursts, is the kind of film that could be a stage play, which isn’t usually a complimentary thing to say about a film. Fortunately, there are enough changes of scenery to prevent the claustrophobic feeling that filmed plays often suffer from.

However you interpret it, I think the main subject of All My Friends Hate Me transcends its class-related issues and effectively evokes the sense of social unease that is so common. While most of these characters may seem they are out of a period piece, anxiety about others’ opinions of you is at least as prevalent in the social media age. If there’s a takeaway, it may be that you can never really know how others feel about you or the motives for their actions.

I’m Thinking of ending things

Netflix is really pushing I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the enigmatic film directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on a book by Iain Reid. This movie isn’t typical for Netflix, which tends more towards the mainstream while Charlie Kaufman is known for experimental indie efforts such as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and the extremely challenging Synecdoche, New York. I’m Thinking of Ending Things approaches Synecdoche in terms of obscurity and the mind games it plays on the audience. Unlike that bizarre film, however, you don’t realize what you’re in for until the last half hour or so.

Your reaction to this film will tend to fall into one of two categories. Either you’ll think it’s a brilliant, original, and mind-bending work of art or you’ll dismiss it as a gimmicky movie that tries too hard to be clever. My reaction was somewhere in the middle. It is clever and mind-bending but it also relies on a fairly frustrating and not all that original gimmick.

I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible. The interesting thing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that, unlike most obscure and intellectually challenging films or TV shows (for example, Twin Peaks or anything by David Lynch), Charlie Kaufman has actually explained what this film means, or at least the gist of it. You can read his comments in an interview with Indie Wire. I suggest watching it first. This is sort of refreshing. I mean, there’s a long tradition, which Lynch exemplifies, of telling viewers to make what they will of the film. Kaufman is rare in actually solving the mystery.

I‘m Thinking of Ending Things is ostensibly about a couple, Lucy, though her actual name is a matter of contention, which is a clue about what kind of film this is (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) who are driving through a snowstorm to visit Jake’s parents, who live in a remote farmhouse. In the beginning, Lucy narrates, expressing her intention to end things with Jake for fairly vague reasons (i.e. the relationship isn’t “going anywhere”).

From the start, we notice that everyone is, well, strange. Jake has an ominously quiet personality (exacerbated if you’ve seen other parts Plemons has played on shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad) while Lucy seems to be fragmented and unsure of who she is. If you pay attention, you’ll notice odd discrepancies. For example, when they arrive at the farmhouse, she says it reminds her of where she grew up. Yet, less than five minutes later, she claims she grew up in an apartment.

Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) take the weirdness to a new level with their awkward giggling fits. More striking is that their ages morph from one scene to the next. At this point, we realize that things aren’t merely odd but downright surreal. From there, it only gets stranger.

In the background is a school janitor (Guy Boyd) who appears to be observing and/or thinking about these characters, though his connection to them remains obscure.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film you really need to study rather than just watch. The best approach would be to see the film then read some reviews, especially ones that contain Kaufman’s revelations. Then see it again. To be honest, I’ve only seen it once and I don’t think I’ll watch it again. I mostly enjoyed it but I just wasn’t that impressed with the contrivance. At around 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s a long stretch.

I have a certain ambivalence about films or novels where the creator is playing with your mind and manipulating your expectations. I’m probably giving a bit away here, but I’ll say that if you think Fight Club was one of the most brilliant novels/films ever, you might love this. On the other hand, there’s also the problem, particular to modern media-crazy society, of getting jaded with devices that may seem clever at first but then appear derivative.

The idea of art being derivative is more of an issue the more alternative or arty you get. With a conventional thriller, rom-com, or a heist movie, for example, you accept that you’re dealing with a genre and have certain expectations. With more experimental works, however, the stakes are higher and the recollection that you’ve seen it all before is a harsher criticism. That may be because an experimental approach sacrifices certain qualities such as accessibility and comfort.

We tolerate the contrivances of a genre film as long as it offers at least something original. Yet when your expectations are shattered, you want it done in a way that’s not just clever but unique. For me, the film wasn’t quite brilliant enough to justify all the mystery. At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be something more conventional, such as that Jake and his parents were Satanists who fed guests to the farm animals. But that’s not really what Charlie Kaufman does.

I try not to be the kind of reviewer who says that you “should” or “shouldn’t” see a film. In regard to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, if you’re even remotely interested in offbeat and intellectually challenging films, you should definitely watch it and make up your own mind. On the other hand, if you prefer straightforward plots where the characters’ very identity or existence aren’t in doubt, you may want to skip this one.

An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn: Absurdist Comedy

An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (2018), directed by indie British filmmaker Jim Hosking, is a bizarre, absurdist comedy currently streaming on Netflix. Like Hosking’s first feature film, The Greasy Strangler, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn premiered at Sundance.

The Plot, Such As It Is

The protagonist, Lulu (Aubrey Plaza, who generally stars in more mainstream movies) does have a goal -seeing Beverly Laff Linn perform- but this is the type of film where the plot is practically irrelevant.

The story, such as it is, involves Lulu leaving her husband Shane (Emile Hirsch), a bumbling coffee shop owner who robbed Lulu’s brother (who inexplicably is an East Indian) along with his even more bumbling co-workers, all who have suits and hairstyles that seem to be from the 70s. Lulu takes up with an incompetent enforcer named Colin (Jemaine Clement), who quickly falls in love with her and basically obeys her every command.

Lulu is basically indifferent to Colin, and is only fixated on seeing the mysterious Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), who mostly grunts rather than speaks for most of the film. Linn, for his part, has a manager/hanger-on named Rodney (Matt Berry) who is just as fixated on him as Colin is with Lulu. Lulu, as it turns out, was involved with Linn many years ago and wants to reconnect.

All of these ridiculous characters converge at the hotel where Linn is allegedly going to perform in some non-specified way. I say allegedly because his performance is repeatedly postponed due to health reasons and/or Rodney’s neurotic interference.

Hosking vs. Lynch

Glenn Kenny of Rogerebert.com compares Hosking’s style (unfavorably) to that of David Lynch, as in Twin Peaks. It’s an understandable comparison as both directors populate their films with ridiculous characters with bizarre mannerisms and quirks. Kenny suggests it’s “the difference between genuinely idiosyncratic vision and an avid desire to be different.” Of course, talking about Lynch is setting the bar very high, as he’s one of the true masters of the bizarre.

Some Thoughts on Absurdism

While there are many screwball comedies, indie comedies, mumblecore comedies, and other sub-niches, there are relatively few truly absurdist comedies. A few I can think of that I’ve seen include Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman), Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh), and The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). There’s a reason that few films truly fit this category. I suppose it overlaps with surrealism, but then you’d have to start including European directors such as Fellini and perhaps David Lynch.

We could debate definitions forever, but in general, surrealism tends to be more visually-oriented, intellectual/philosophical, and dreamlike. Absurdism is more random, lighthearted, and comical. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, one of the earliest modern indie films, isn’t surrealistic, but it has definite absurdist qualities.

This long digression is really to point out why absurdism is so hard to pull off. Lacking the visual depth of surrealism and the logical narrative of more conventional scripts, an absurdist tale has to engage the audience, keep them laughing and at least somewhat connected to the characters without the usual narrative devices, such as the protagonist reaching a goal.

Worth Seeing if You Have a Taste for the Offbeat

I think Hosking does succeed to some degree at creating a macabre parallel world where people dress and speak in a weirdly anachronistic manner. The film did make me laugh a fair amount. At the same time, although the film ran an average108 minutes length, it seemed very long and probably could have been edited down to 90 minutes or even a little less.

I haven’t seen Hosking’s previous film, The Greasy Strangler. Based on An Evening With Beverly Laff Linn, though, I’d be interested to see what he comes up with in the future. At the very least, his films are something different. And while some reviewers may accuse him of being weird for its own sake, Hosking does have an aesthetic and sense of humor of his own that invokes interest in his characters.

Dean: Directed and starring Demetri Martin

Dean – Demetri Martin (2016)

Dean, the indie film directed and written by and starring Demetri Martin, is somewhere in between a minimalist/mumblecore and a standard rom-com. You may be familiar with Martin’s stand-up performances, which have appeared on Netflix (where you can also find this film, though you may have to search).

Not everyone is a fan of Demetri Martin’s ultra low-key, hipster persona. In terms of stand-up, the closest analogy I can think of is Steven Wright , who delivers his often absurdist lines in a similar monotone (as Wright has been around since the 70s, he may have been an influence on Martin). I’ll confess that I actually like both of these guys more than many people do. But then I’m not a big fan of standard stand-up, which to me all starts to sound the same after a while with jokes about airports, relationships, having kids, and aging. I’ve heard Martin described as pretentiously hip and so forth but I actually appreciate that you never really know what he’s going to say and it doesn’t always make sense.

Even as a Martin fan, however, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Dean. Martin’s style on stage, where he delivers unexpected and often hilariously absurd one-liners, doesn’t really work the same way on screen. Here, he’s just another emo-type hipster with a broken heart.

Dean is a youngish (Martin was 44 when this came out but could pass for late 20s) struggling artist living in an improbably stylish Brooklyn brownstone. He and his father Robert (Kevin Kline) are suffering from the recent death of Dean’s mother. Robert wants to sell their house, which is a source of disagreement between father and son. To avoid dealing with that, and to get away from his life in general, Dean flies to LA where he has an interview with an internet company that’s interested in his darkly whimsical illustrations (the drawings, actually done by Martin, are featured throughout the film).

We get a familiar parody of LA with its decadent parties and obnoxious internet startup types. Dean’s trip is not a total waste, though, as he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), the sort of perky blond co-star that’s practically mandatory in rom-coms. There’s a parallel romance happening back in New York as Robert flirts with a real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen). Are either Dean or Robert ready for a serious relationship?

Dean isn’t only a lightweight indie-ish rom-com. It’s also about how people deal with grief. This isn’t an original topic, but it’s one that has archetypal relevance to everyone. Martin attempts to convey an arc for his character, who goes from flippant and obnoxious to more self-reflective and considerate of those around him. I think the problem with Martin is that minimalism is what he does best and while this definitely works for a certain type of humor, it doesn’t really work for creating a complex and sympathetic character.

I’ll also add that I’ve developed a certain attitude towards movies where the director, writer, and star are the same person. I’m sure you could come up with examples of great films that fit this category, this approach has its pitfalls such as a lack of objectivity -someone to watch what’s going on and notice areas that may need tweaking.

There’s nothing to hate about Dean. It has passably funny dialog in places and anyone in creative fields and/or who has lost a parent will be able to relate to Dean to some extent. It just doesn’t really stand out from the thousands of other indie/ rom-coms set in New York and/or LA with scripts that have similar trajectories.

Room For Rent

Room For Rent, a low-budget Canadian blackish comedy directed by Matthew Atkinson, is the kind of indie comedy that provides a respite from the steady stream of formula action, horror, rom-coms, and other generic fare churned out by the Hollywood machine.

This isn’t to say that Room For Rent doesn’t fall into genre cliches of its own. There’s definitely an established category of psycho roommate who won’t leave. However, while Brett Gelman infuses the unhinged roommate Carl with an edgy creepiness that could turn scary, the film never quite goes into full-fledged horror mode.

Mitch (Mark Little) is a thirty-something slacker who still lives with his parents. The catch in his case is that he’s a former lottery winner who managed to blow over $3 million in a few years with a series of failed inventions and improbable business ventures, including a self-drying umbrella and a sex doll marketed to teen girls.

When Mitch’s father (played by Mark McKinney, known as the goofy manager on the TV show Superstore) loses his job, the family is faced with the prospect of losing their home. Rather than consider the extreme prospect of getting a job, Mitch comes up with the idea of renting out a room. Enter Carl, who arrives with a suitcase, ready to move in on the spot, and a thick wad of cash which overcomes the parent’s reluctance to take in a complete stranger.

Carl wins over the parents but makes Mitch uneasy. An undertone of creepiness soon becomes outright threats and pranks. Carl calls up Mitch’s ex-girlfriend Lindsay (Carla Gallo), who Mitch alienated while going on his spending spree years ago.

The second half of Room For Rent takes a slightly different course than you might expect from the Roommate From Hell genre. Without getting too specific, let’s say that the film provides a semi-coherent motive for Gelman’s bizarre behavior.

I found the explanation a bit convoluted and contrived. For one thing, it depended on Carl arriving at Mitch’s household literally minutes after the “Room For Rent” sign was put up. It also gets into some dubious legal and business matters involving patents that may or may not make sense (I’ll let someone with an MBA or a patent lawyer answer that one).

All in all, however, Room For Rent is an entertaining movie. I always give props to a film that’s at least somewhat unpredictable. In a typical Hollywood film with this kind of setup, you’d have something like Pacific Heights (actually a pretty good example, and one of the first, of that genre), where Michael Keaton’s psycho character gets crazier and crazier until the predictable bloodbath ensues.

Countless cable (e.g. Lifetime) knockoffs of this variety have been made. At least Room For Rent, though not perfect, manages to walk an interesting line between drama and dark comedy without falling into total cliche.

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.

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.

The Voices Film Review

The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is best known for her 2007 animated Iranian film Persepolis, is a strange film that’s difficult to categorize, love or hate (at least for this reviewer). It can be seen as an original, very dark comedy about a superficially likable guy named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who happens to be schizophrenic and turns into a serial killer. It can be appreciated for its absurdist humor or criticized for its gory scenes, portrayal of mental illness and for the seemingly lighthearted way that it depicts violence against women.

Apart from anything else, I did find aspects of The Voices quite funny. Specifically, the way Jerry hears his cat and dog talking to him, playing the parts of angel and devil (with the cat, naturally, being the latter). Reynolds himself does a moderately good job of doing these voices, with the cat having a Scottish brogue and the large bull mastiff speaking in a cartoon-dog southern drawl. We actually see the cat’s mouth moving as he “talks” to Jerry and urges him to commit all kinds of hideous crimes.

There is nothing realistic about The Voices, even apart from talking pets. Jerry is a man with a history of mental illness who, it seems, has recently been released from an institution. He sees a therapist regularly, played by Jacki Weaver. He lives in a depressing industrial city called Milton that is somewhere in the middle of the country. Jerry inexplicably inhabits an entire building, a former bowling alley. While this makes for a convenient headquarters for a serial killer, it is hardly credible that a man who works in a warehouse is able to rent out an entire building all by himself.

Jerry’s workplace is similarly bizarre and off-kilter, with employees who wear pink uniforms and, at least in one scene, dance in musical style numbers around the factory. There is even a local Chinese restaurant that features unlikely Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators. One feature of The Voices is that we are meant to notice a large gap between reality as perceived by Jerry (when he is off his meds) and the real, far less colorful and hopeful world.

Jerry’s descent into complete madness begins when his romantic advances towards attractive co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) are not reciprocated. Despite this, the scene in which he brutally murders her does not really make sense, even given Jerry’s mental state. He is clearly infatuated with Fiona and she is actually being nice to him, albeit in a dishonest way, up until the point when things go wrong. After they hit a deer, Jerry inexplicably turns violent against Fiona.

The most complex relationship in the film involves Jerry and another co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the only character who genuinely likes Jerry. The begin a romance, but Jerry’s evil cat Mr. Whiskers, along with Fiona’s head (which Jerry now keeps in the freezer) are urging him to continue his killing spree. Funny, sick or just plain bizarre stuff, depending on your tastes.

We get quite a few glimpses into Jerry’s back story; his mother was also mentally ill and also heard voices. However, as any mental health advocate will tell you, most schizophrenics are not violent, especially not in the premeditated way that Jerry’s actions ultimately unfold. Perhaps they were thinking of the real life infamous killer Son of Sam, who supposedly followed orders given by his dog when he went on a killing spree in the 1970s.

It’s hard to say what director Satrapi and writer Michael Perry were trying to achieve with The Voices. The focus on Jerry’s tragic childhood and the absurdly upbeat and surreal ending set in heaven with a dancing Jesus, seem to be urging us to sympathize with this unlikely but not entirely unlikable serial killer. At the same time, it’s impossible for any remotely sane person to justify anything Jerry does in this film.

Critical response to The Voices has been interesting and extremely conflicted. I read one review that called the film “perfect,” which seems like excessive praise. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading a vitriolic but insightful feminist critique of the film by Maryann Johanson, on The Flick Philosopher. I’m not sure if I agree with her conclusion that the film is thoroughly misogynistic, but it does bring up some salient points about the way violence against women is trivialized.

I’m not a big believer in quantifying films with stars (or, even worse, using a binary, absurdly simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system), which is why I don’t use stars on any of my reviews. However, just to put things in perspective, if I were rating The Voices on Netlfix or Amazon I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a film that’s darkly funny, interesting, disturbing and extremely uneven.