Just over five years ago, I posted two articles to CounterPunch arguing against a Netflix subscription. At the time, Netflix was positioned as a dispenser of Hollywood movies and, as such, not worth your money. Since then, the streaming service has moved away from the kind of fare that can be found on Hulu, Vudu, iTunes, Verizon FIOS and other streaming services that serve up steaming ordure like “Apollo 11” or “Madea: A Family Funeral” on a silver platter.
When I posted the two articles in 2014, the intention was to inform CounterPunch readers about streaming services that offer the kind of offbeat films I tend to review: foreign-language, documentary and independent films that show up in theaters in New York or Los Angeles and then disappear after a week or so. You can still see such films on Mubi, Fandor and on Ovid, the new VOD service that was formed by a group of leading-edge distributors that share the same political outlook as CounterPunch. For only $6.99 per month, Ovid is a bargain at twice the price. To give you a sense of the kind of films available from Ovid, it has just added the 2013 documentary “To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter”, a tribute to the great Marxist filmmaker. Although I hate Jeff Bezos just as much as any leftist, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Amazon does provide VOD for many excellent, non-commercial films.
Turning back to Netflix, I’d like to give you an idea of the kind of films and foreign TV series that justify the $12.99 I pay for a subscription as well as some that I’ve seen on Amazon. Despite the corporate greed that makes the men that own them so reprehensible, the works considered below are more interesting and even more entertaining than any screener I received from Hollywood publicists throughout 2018. While only tangentially political, they are extremely well-written and acted. They are also filled with insights about society under late capitalism.
I put them into 3 categories: action films about dangerous cults, TV series about undercover cops, and TV series about cops suffering from PTSD. As for recommending shows that have cops as heroes, I imagine that most CounterPunch readers would consider that as adapting to the bourgeoisie. Keeping in mind that this is a genre that includes some great Swedish detective series written by Marxists that I reviewed for CounterPunch, I would urge you to eschew dogmatism.
(1) Cult Grand Guignol
In 2015, Vice published an interview with Lindsay Gibb, the author of a new book titled rather defiantly “National Treasure: Nicolas Cage”. The premise of the book is that he only accepts roles in B-movies because they allow him to push the boundaries of his craft. I was convinced of this after seeing him play the yuppie literary agent in the 1989 “Vampire’s Kiss” who has become convinced that he is a vampire. He wears sunglasses during the day and when fangs fail to develop, he buys plastic vampire teeth at a novelty shop.
That was my favorite Nicolas Cage film until I saw “Mandy” last year, a film that I came close to nominating best film of 2018 as a NYFCO member. Looking back in retrospect, I am sorry that I didn’t. “Mandy” can be seen on Amazon now and is the boldest film made in the USA I have seen in the past five years or so. Cage plays a lumberjack named Red Miller who lives with his girlfriend Mandy in a rustic but comfortable cabin they call home in a California forest. She works as a clerk in a convenience store by day and draws eerie fantasy drawings at night.
One evening as she is returning home, she is accosted by members of the Children of the New Dawn, a Manson-like cult led by Jeremiah Sand. When Sand spots her from the van they travel in, he orders his cohorts to bring her to his lair where she is tortured, raped and then killed.
When Red Miller learns that his beloved has been taken away from him in the most brutal manner, he steels himself for a revenge mission that allows Cage to assume the identity of a man as crazed in his way as the yuppie vampire in “Vampire’s Kiss” was in his. In one of the more memorable scenes in the film, he forges a battle-ax from molten steel that he carries around with him like an avenging angel.
Besides Cage’s eye-popping performance, the film is distinguished by director Panos Cosmatos’s powerful visual imagination that produces one vivid landscape of hell on earth after another. The cinematography uses the same palette as Mandy’s drawings to great effect The film is the aesthetic counterpart of Death Metal music and a work unlike any I have seen in years, having some resemblance to Roger Corman at his best—and probably exceeding him. As for the brilliant film score itself, it was written by Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic composer who died shortly after the film was released, the result of an accidental overdose of cocaine combined with medication. No doubt, he felt a strong affinity with the film’s subject matter.
Director Panos Cosmatos had a keen appreciation of what Nicolas Cage could bring to this film. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, he describes the partnership that helped bring Cage’s character to life: “We had long conversations where we formulated the progression of his character from scene to scene to scene. He starts off as this sort of normal, if a little bit tortured, man. And then after what happens to Mandy, he kind of becomes like an animal creature. And in the third act, he takes the character and he modifies it into a sort of a demigod of wrath who is exacting revenge on the mortal plain, like a sort of golem, or something, a golem.”
Like Red Miller, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is a man on a mission in “Apostle”, a film made for Netflix in 2018 that was far more interesting than “Roma”, a totally oversold film. Set in 1905, it depicts Richardson’s voyage to a wind-swept island off the coast of Wales to rescue his sister from a cult just as deadly as the Children of the New Dawn. It is a mixture of a Christian commune and a fertility cult that needs fresh blood from members to keep the soil arable. The island is ruled by a maniacal lay preacher who has a deep paranoid streak made deeper when he discovers that Richardson is not a true believer and is making inroads into the island’s tightly regimented society.
The cult worships a goddess, an old woman who sits on a throne made up of tree roots that have become knitted to her body. The general ambiance of the film is similar to “The Island of Doctor Moreau” with the horrors revolving around human/vegetation commingling rather than Moreau’s experiments that melded human beings with lions, apes, etc.
Before he became a director, Gareth Evans made a living teaching Welsh over the Internet. In an interview with Collider, a movie zine, he describes the effect he is striving for in “Apostle”:
For me, it was like, well what if these people arrive on this island and it’s perfect. You’ve got this goddess, she’s almost a little bit like mother nature in that respect, she feeds off of it and then she replenishes. The sea would be perfect, the harvest is amazing, it’s all clean and beautiful crops. They turn up and they find her, instead of revering her, they want to abuse the power they can gain from her. So they enslave her. From there on, that’s when the crops become toxic because it’s not that she’s replenishing the village because of her natural ability but because she’s forced to. That became a mechanism, which is kind of used as an allegory for what we were talking about with the politics, religion and corruption of both.
I’m not sure about whether the allegory makes much sense but as a film, “Apostle” will leave you breathless.
(2) Going Undercover
“Undercover” is actually the name of a Bulgarian TV show that finished its first season in 2011 and that is now available on Amazon. It was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”, which featured Leonard DiCaprio as a Boston cop who goes undercover to get the goods on a gang similar to Whitey Bulger’s at the same time the Bulger character played by Jack Nicholson sends a henchman played by Matt Damon into the police department to stay one step ahead of them. In the process, DiCaprio becomes hardened by gang culture to the point where he begins to lose track of his obligations to uphold law and order (this is fiction, after all.)
“The Departed” is based in turn on a Hong Kong film titled “Infernal Affairs” that is far better but both films pale in comparison to the Bulgarian TV series that while following the storyline of undercover cops becoming tainted is far better at probing the psychological depths of assumed identity.
The two main characters in “Undercover” are the undercover cop Martin Hristov (Ivaylo Zahariev), and Bulgarian mafia boss Petar ‘Dzaro’ Tudzharov (Mihail Bilalov). Dzaro, an ex-cop who has moles operating in the police department, is unlike any mafia don you have ever seen in film or TV. He is a gourmet cook and opera lover with an ironic sense of humor who takes glee in killing his gangland opponents and any cop who gets too close to getting the evidence needed to put him in prison. If you remember Anthony Hopkin’s performance in “Silence of the Lambs” (who couldn’t?), you’ll get an idea of Dzaro’s character.
When Dzaro discovers that his most trusted aide is a cop, the result is a fight to the finish that makes for great drama. While much of “Undercover” is intended to serve as entertainment, it does cast a light on the Bulgarian mafia’s power. Not a single mafia boss has ever been prosecuted there, and even exceeds the Sicilian mafia’s ability to sink tentacles into the state apparatus. All of this is depicted convincingly in “Undercover”, a TV series that was a smash hit but not so popular with the country’s officials who objected to the graphic sex and violence. One surmises that they were far more uncomfortable with the graphic depiction of mob and state collusion. Hopefully, the Trump administration will not seek to ban future seasons being shown on Netflix.
Like “Undercover”, “Wild District” depicts a government and police department that turns a blind eye to criminality. Season one, that premiered on Netflix last year, is set during the period that opened up after the Colombia government and the FARC came to an agreement that would allow the long-time revolutionary movement to become a legal, electoral-oriented party. As most people know, especially CounterPunch readers, that agreement has largely become undone as the government resorts to the murderous policies that have been in force for the past fifty years at least.
“Wild District” tells the story of Jhon Jeiver (Juan Pablo Raba), a legendary FARC guerrilla who moves to Bogotá after the peace treaty is signed. Hoping to live a normal civilian life, a hope deepened by his disillusionment with the FARC, he is a fearsome fighter who has killed many soldiers and rightwing military members. As such, he is subject to arrest for war crimes but the military intelligence officer who recognized him from an old photo decides to force him to go undercover and penetrate the country’s gangs that are staffed with both ex-FARC and paramilitary fighters. His prowess qualifies him for membership in a leading gang that has deep ties with Bogotá’s bourgeoisie that makes the men around Trump look like boy scouts by comparison.
Jhon Jeiver seeks only to fulfill his obligations as an undercover cop and return to normal life as a father to his teenage son who is beginning to adopt the grubby values of the rich kids he goes to school with. His story is a combination of family and police drama that is told exceedingly well. As for its ability to tell the story of Colombia’s social and political fault lines, it leaves a lot to be desired but it is likely that it never would have been funded if it cut the FARC some slack.
(3) Stressed out detectives
“Bitter Daisies” is a Netflix series that originated in Spain and is notable for being a Galician-language film, which has some commonalities with Portuguese and is spoken in the autonomous region of Galicia in the northwest of Spain.
It begins with the arrival of Rosa Vargas (Maria Mera), a rookie police officer of the Spanish Civil Guard, who arrives at the small Galician town of Murias, where supposedly “nothing ever happens”. She is there to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Marta Labrada but before long she discovers that this sleepy rural town is where a sadistic sex club patronized by very wealthy and politically connected men pay to torture, rape and sometimes kill young women lured into the sex trade.
As a thorough and savvy cop, she begins uncovering one clue after another in the coolest of manner but when on her own, she keeps swallowing pills that we surmise are to keep her from falling apart. Like the town, she has her own secrets that lead her to a confrontation with the sexual predators and the town’s elite who are benefiting materially from looking the other way.
The series was completed in one season and is one of the most brilliantly written and acted shows I have seen on Netflix this year. While it is not explicitly political, the town’s failing economy can be seen as responsible for the moral and legal compromises that are endemic to rural Spain. Galicia is one of Spain’s poorest regions, with kind of unequal land distribution that has left much of Latin America poor as well. There has been steady emigration since the 1950s and likely nothing in Spain’s future will reverse the present course. Like the film noir of the post-WWII period, “Bitter Daisies” reflects the pessimism of a population grown fatalistic by its circumstances. Obviously, the dark character of most Netflix police shows reflects a reality that is all too absent in the cop shows featured on American network TV.
“The Break” is a French-language Belgian TV series consisting of two seasons that is also on Netflix and outstanding. It has much in common with “Bitter Daisies”: a pill-popping cop, who is the lead character, being set in a rural town that is filled with sexual crimes and dark secrets despite its placid appearance, and a town elite that is up to its neck in shady deals.
Yoann Blanc plays Detective Yoann Peeters who has returned to his home town to escape the bad memories of a drug raid he conducted in Brussels that left members of his team dead as a result of mistakes he made in the heat of the moment. Among the fatalities was his wife, a fellow cop. He is haunted by her loss and thus relies on a variety of pills that would likely knock out a bull but needed to help him get through the day.
The story begins with an African immigrant soccer player named Driss turning up dead in the river that flows near the village. The local cops conclude that he has committed suicide but the more seasoned and intelligent Peeters soon concludes that he was murdered.
Like an Agatha Christie tale, there is any number of suspects who could have carried out the murder. An elderly neo-Nazi who has spent time in prison for a hate crime. A hired gun of a construction company that has been bulldozing its way through local objections by farmers that will leave their land flooded. An Albanian gangster who has paid the immigrant and his teammates to intentionally lose soccer games so he can make a killing by betting for their opponents.
Among the suspects is Peeters’s partner, an inexperienced and “soft” cop who has evidently had an obsession with a local girl that has become Driss’s lover.
The plot of this detective tale is as skillfully woven as any Agatha Christie movie I have seen and will keep you up at night trying to second-guess the teleplay author. The acting is first-rate and the cinematography captivates. Directed and written by Matthieu Donck, it will persuade you that countries like Bulgaria, Spanish Galicia, Colombia and Belgium can teach Hollywood a lot about film and TV production even if they can’t compete economically. Perhaps their relative economic backwardness allows them to be more open to the social realities that make these stories so gripping. While all of them are successful as entertainment, they also put our contemporary social and economic malaise into perspective.