The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bill Murray Stories on Netflix

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.

“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.

These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.

You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.

We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.

There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.

Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.

Green Book: Familiar But Engaging Buddy/Road/Race Relations Movie

Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (along with his brother Robert, best known for low-brow comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and Something About Mary ) starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali is the kind of film that Hollywood absolutely loves to produce and that tends to win Academy Awards: A buddy film that takes place on the road, with a mismatched black and white duo and dealing with serious social issues.

Tony Lip (a moblike nickname) is a bouncer at a nightclub who has at least casual ties to local mob figures. Despite a penchant for gambling, he manages to steer clear of their dubious offers of easy money. When the nightclub closes, he seeks employment and has an interview for an unusual driving job with a musician named Don Shirley (Ali).

The two are about as mismatched as you could imagine. “Doctor” Shirley is a classical musician, a Ph.D. who speaks multiple languages while Tony Lip is a garrulous street character whose diction Shirley immediately starts to correct.

As the two drive to the segregated South of 1962, they encounter predictable instances of racism and hypocrisy. While Shirley is superficially honored as a great musician, he is not allowed to dine with white people or even use their toilets.

The lessons the two impart to one another are predictable. Tony’s worldview expands while Shirley learns to loosen up and even enjoy fried chicken (a recurring joke that’s milked throughout the film).

It would be easy to dismiss Green Book as merely a series of familiar tropes. Despite this, strong performances and some moving, as well as humorous moments, provide genuine pathos as well as entertainment. It does come perilously close to falling into the “white savior” category as Tony (Mortensen) acts as bodyguard and protector to. However, he’s just flawed enough to avoid being too blatantly a savior.

The film was “inspired by a true story,” which means that somewhere, sometime, something at least remotely similar may have occurred. Green Book gets its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an actual book which provided information on which hotels and other businesses permitted blacks to enter.

The fact that Green Book has been nominated for Best Picture can be attributed mainly to Hollywood’s long-time attachment to familiar themes and uplifting tales involving race. Driving Miss Daisy, a film that invites comparisons to Green Book for obvious reasons won Best Picture in 1990, a year when a far more cutting-edge drama dealing with racial issues, Do The Right Thing, wasn’t even nominated.

Both Mortensen and Ali were also nominated for, respectively, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Whatever little relevance the Oscars have these days, the actors are deserving of acclaim for making the very most of what they have to work with. Mortensen, in particular, is given the all-too familiar role of a brash Italian American gangster type with a gargantuan appetite (in an early scene, he wins a hotdog-eating contest). Despite this, he manages to rise above the stereotype and imbue Tony with likable qualities.

While not exactly original or groundbreaking, Green Book isn’t as banal or objectionable as it could have been. It’s the kind of film that is hard to dislike even if you recognize that it’s shamelessly tugging at familiar heartstrings.

I saw Green Book at Tyneside Cinema, an atmospheric, well-preserved traditional theater in Newcastle, UK where they do an admirable job of recreating the old-fashioned cinema experience. I did grumble at the decidedly modern practice of making you sit through some 20 minutes of commercials before the film but I suppose it’s a challenge for movie theaters to pay the bills these days.

Fyre on Netflix

“The Greatest Party That Never Happened”

The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.

While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.

Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.

One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.

What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.

They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”

What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.

Fyre: A Lifestyle App

At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.

All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.

Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?

One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.

We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.

One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.

Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.

The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air

The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.

In 2000 there was a collapse of internet companies that threatened the demise of the digital age in its infancy. While this is sometimes conflated with the post-9/11 economic slump, the internet bubble actually started to burst in 2000.

It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.

Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.

The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.

When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).

The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.

A Society Obsessed With Images

Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).

The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.

Forever: Amazon Prime’s Experimental, Existential Dramedy

Warning: Mild spoiler alert (mild as this isn’t really a plot-driven show so major spoilers would be nearly impossible).

Amazon Prime has been entering the streaming TV competition (mainly against Netflix and Hulu) with a fury. While many of its shows are fairly standard genre fare: Jack Ryan is a familiar Cold War-type spy hero while Goliath is a legal thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton, Forever is something different: a low-key, experimental comedy/drama/fantasy.

Starring Saturday Night Live alumni Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, Forever takes a few episodes to establish its premise. The two stars play a married couple, June and Oscar, who are basically content with their lives. June, however, feels a certain amount of boredom and frustration with Oscar’s complacency -a recurring theme of the entire season.

The Afterlife as Suburban Limbo

Here’s the closest thing to a genuine spoiler: both Oscar and June die and relocated to an afterlife that’s like a less populated version of a Southern California suburb. Nothing much happens in Forever, which is unusual for American television. The two explore their relationship, interact with a few other characters in the afterlife (including one played by Catherine Keener, a fixture in many indie films since the 90s).

I appreciate the effort behind shows such as Forever, as I’m sure anyone is who is simply tired of the same old rom-coms, thrillers, and special effects-driven superhero shows and movies that dominate popular culture today. However, I can’t say I was especially captivated by Forever. As I mentioned, not much happens here and the conversations and self-reflection are only interesting up to a point. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis played out in the Afterlife. I doubt if a show like this would get much attention, or even a chance to air if it didn’t have star power behind it. Because Armisen and Rudolph are so familiar and we associate them with cutting-edge culture, we might be more patient with the lackluster material than we might otherwise be.

There’s nothing terrible about the show and it’s certainly watchable. At the same time, it isn’t particularly funny, suspenseful, or moving. The closest thing to suspense is the viewer’s instinct to believe that something is sure to happen sooner or later. That’s why the word “existentialist” came to mind. It does rather capture the state of mind people might have in Limbo, though the afterlife here is never given that name – or any name. That’s another odd thing about the show -this is an extremely vague vision of the Afterlife.

There’s, as I mentioned, a sparsely populated suburban landscape. Then they discover another place where dead people “live” -a kind of mansion where residents party and symbolically burn all ties to the past (i.e. their actual lives). So one theme of the show is the question of whether it’s better to retain your memories or live in an eternal present. Yet nothing seems to be at stake here. There’s no suggestion of great rewards or damnation (or the possibility or reincarnating).

One whole episode abandons the main characters completely and focuses on another couple, two married people who are having an affair. This episode is well done but has no connection to anything that comes before or after. The only link is that, at the end, we see June observing them, apparently motivating her to travel with Kase (Keener) away from the burbs to the more glamorous neighborhood. There’s an intimation that the two might be attracted to each other but this possibility doesn’t play out.

In some ways, Forever is the diametrical opposite of another contemporary show about the Afterlife: The Good Place. Whereas that show is full of rules and explanations (from where much of the humor is derived), Forever is like a Twilight Zone episode where you never find out what’s really going on. You might say the vagueness of their situation makes it more creative and open to interpretation. On the other hand, you could just as easily say it’s a bit lazy, leaving viewers to wonder where the hell (pun intended?) they really are and why.

The Afterlife as a Continuation of Middle-Class Privilege?

One reaction, that I had at times, is to roll your eyes at this vision of privilege (perhaps an overused word these days) – that comfortable, upper-middle-class people with few serious problems will just keep on like that forever, living in a spacious suburban home with all their material (or perhaps immaterial) needs automatically met. Of course, many shows focus on the affluent or at least comfortable. To digress a bit, a good example is Modern Family. At the same time that it revels in its message of embracing diversity, it’s all within the rubric of comfortable, property-owning professionals. However, the metaphysical pretensions of Forever put it in another category. Any portrayal of an Afterlife, unless otherwise specified, implies that this is where everyone goes. Of course, the extreme insularity of these characters’ situation deliberately cuts off contemplation of universal concerns. Like characters in 19th century English and Russian novels, their main challenge is boredom.

Is This All There Is?

The ending of Forever (another very mild spoiler alert!) suggests that Oscar and June can expand their reality if they become a bit more adventurous. In other words, just perhaps, there could be a version of the Afterlife that’s not an endless continuation of suburban ennui. Will Forever continue for another season? As of now, it’s uncertain. According to Bustle, “probably not.” It’s hard to care too much as the first season didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger.

It’s probably best not to read too much into Forever (advice I clearly didn’t follow). It’s probably more a metaphor for modern middle-class life, mid-life crises, and relationships than a true exploration of eschatology. It’s almost incidental that June and Oscar are dead. What the show is really asking is, how can they wake up and rediscover themselves in a society that encourages a kind of sleepwalking? Taken this way, the show is fairly interesting if not exactly mind-blowing.

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.

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