Sean K. Cureton

Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

Dissastisfaction, Violence, and American Idol

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on March 29, 2014 at 10:43 am

Theatrical Poster
God Bless America (2011)
Directed Bobcat Goldthwait
Netflix Rating: Liked It

In a career that has come to be defined by a certain personal dissatisfaction and manic energy constantly threatening to erupt into retributive violence, Bobcat Goldthwait’s fourth feature film, God Bless America, delivers on all of the latent hostility and resentment of an otherwise suppressed personality. Borrowing from a lot of his own stand up material from over the years, Goldthwait’s God Bless America is a dark comedy in the same grain as his 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad, but with a little more bite in its cynical indictments of a culture dominated by vacuous reality TV personalities and fear mongering political rhetoric, both on the news and in the White House. While much of the film feels irresponsible, at times attacking well known individuals and groups purely for a lack of aesthetic taste or intellectual subtlety, the rest of the film works quite well despite itself, using the embellishment of cinematic violence to drive Goldthwait’s point home. At times harking back to such touchstone films as Bonnie and Clyde and Taxi Driver, God Bless America takes on the task of hard boiled cultural analysis boldly, even if its overall execution is lacking, its allusions to the two aforementioned cinematic classics being the only thing that it actually shares with them. Nevertheless, God Bless America might be Goldthwait’s best film to date, providing the well-known comic with a mouthpiece to voice all of his socio-political viewpoints with succinct comprehensiveness and comic panache.

God Bless America centers around the life of Frank (Joel Murray), middle aged, divorced, and terminally ill. To add insult to injury, Frank is also the victim of two unruly blue-collar neighbors and their cacophonous infant, an ungrateful, spoiled brat of a daughter, and a group of co-workers whose soul collective purpose appears to consist in watching and dissecting the very same reality television programs that Frank abhors. Once Frank learns of his illness, however, and all of the restrictions that had previously kept him complacent and restrained fall away, Frank’s long held resentment of a culture that he sees as being founded on bullying and mean spirited egotism bursts forth in a grand plan to kill the star of a My Super Sweet 16 knockoff program. This decision then ignites the angst-ridden dissatisfaction of Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who witnesses Frank’s murder of the reality television diva, and after a little encouragement, Frank takes on Roxy as an accomplice, and the two anti-heroes go on a self-righteous rampage of violent revenge, taking out such instigators of social disease and chaos as homophobic religious protestors, Fox News type political commentators, as well as the entire cast, crew, and audience of an American Idol type competition show. The path that the two characters carve out for themselves over the course of the film is pointedly critical and satirically clever at best, but ultimately empty of any true redemptive moments, for their victims or for themselves, which makes much of Goldthwait’s film self-indulgent and petty, even if one fundamentally agrees with the film’s basic premise and social dialogue.

Like World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America suffers from its rather high cinematic ambitions, constantly attempting to reach levels of subtlety and wit that continue to elude Goldthwait as a director. Where Goldthwait’s eviscerating commentary on people who watch American Idol is funny and inclusive in the stand up format, the same tired rant becomes cloying and vaguely doddering when Joel Murray delivers it in the film to a conspicuously young co-worker. Watching the two characters in Goldthwait’s film take literal aim at the very worst pop cultural institutions of tastelessness and nihilistic apathy should be fun, but instead the scenes of exaggerated violence feel ethically dubious and comically un-earned, backed up only by a very vague voicing of personal displeasure and unacknowledged anger. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was abandoned and led mad by a world brimming with corruption and the constant threat of danger, and Bonnie and Clyde, from Arthur Penn’s classic 1964 film, were counter-cultural, folk heroes, reacting against a world that they felt was small and constricting in its conservative ideologies. In comparison, Frank and Roxy feel small and obnoxious, whining about the supposedly unearned successes of such contemporary cultural icons as Green Day and Diablo Cody, and employing a form of vigilante justice that they don’t seem to inhabit quiet as well as their cinematic forebears in an attempt to make their concerns seem more monumental than they actually are.

However, all ethical messiness and cinematic roughness aside, God Bless America is still a more than adequate film, at times reaching levels of extreme comedic highs. Even for its most trying scenes, particularly one centering on a movie theatre shooting, Goldthwait’s innate compassion and empathy bleeds through the film, reinvigorating the film’s protagonists with a basic sense of humanity that allows the viewer to forgive them there selfish and violent transgressions. It’s important to remember that Frank and Roxy aren’t psychotic killers, but merely two otherwise moral individuals who have been bullied and denigrated by a culture that no longer seems to care for them, more willing to forget them at best or dispose and abuse them at worst. The declining state of the American social consciousness is at stake in Goldthwait’s film, and the all out war that the two characters wage upon it, however indirectly and immaturely, is a battle worth championing, even if God Bless America goes about staging this battle in the wrong way. Bottom line, God Bless America is a film that poses large socio-cultural questions to an audience eager to grapple with them, presenting its characters as the victims of a way of living and treating other people that has failed them, causing violence and mayhem to erupt in their wake. Even if Frank is no Travis Bickle, and Roxy is a poor adolescent imitation of Bonnie Parker, Goldthwait’s utilization of these two characters is handled with enough finesse and comedy to render them immediately relatable, making their plight over the course of the film forgivable and understandable.

God Bless America is availble on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.


The LEGO Movie as Mass Market Commodity

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on March 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Theatrical Poster

The LEGO Movie
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
3 out of 4 stars

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made quite a reputation for themselves as directors of gimmick based films that have proved to be better than they should have been. Starting with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 2009, which has already spawned its first lucrative sequel as a franchise this past summer, as well as the 21 Jump Street reboot/teen comedy from 2012, starring the unlikely but successful comedy duo of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, also slated for a highly anticipated blockbuster sequel coming out this summer, The LEGO Movie feels like the next logical step for this ridiculously successful filmmaking team. Centered around the already highly marketable, monetary powerhouse that is the LEGO toy company, The LEGO Movie is a grand marketing scheme masquerading as a family friendly, animated motion picture, swathed in post-modern, self-referential gags and one liners, sure to appeal to the inner fanboy in all of us. For all of its inventiveness and quick-witted intelligence, Lord and Miller’s new film shouldn’t work as well as it does on the viewer, as its ulterior motives as an advertising campaign for the LEGO company is much too apparent to be ignored. Nevertheless, The LEGO Movie is for all other intents and purposes a great movie, espousing the kinds of lessons and values that every parent would want for their children to learn, even if those values are being delivered within an advertisement for a toy company.

The LEGO Movie is about an everyman voiced by Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, an aptly cast construction worker whose entire existence is dictated by the instruction manuals familiar to anybody who has ever owned or played with a LEGO construction set. As the film progresses, Pratt’s Emmet Brickowoski is shown an entirely different way of seeing his world through the introduction of a group of LEGO denizens known as the Master Builders, LEGO people who build things from the popular plastic bricks according to their own imaginations and ambitions, effectively thinking for themselves instead of giving into the mob mentality typified by Emmet’s instruction manuals, as well as his homogenized taste in music. The way in which Lord and Miller’s film delivers this grand lesson in accepting the self and celebrating individual personality is heartwarming and well delivered, bright and cheerful for the kids begging their parents to take them to see the film, as well as clever and self-aware for the parents and hipsters more in tune to the film’s numerous allusions and masterfully orchestrated sight gags. However, there is a certain irony to the film, as mentioned previously, in that the film is ultimately a supersized advertising campaign for the LEGO toy company, using the film as a means to sell more LEGO play sets and franchise memorabilia, including a wildly successful line of video games, making The LEGO Movie a rather duplicitous entity, neither film nor marketing campaign. In this way, Lord and Miller seem to have broken the ultimate movie making code, designing a film around marketing and advertising without abandoning substantive content, selling you a product you then assume you had intended to buy in the first place.

With a sequel to The LEGO Movie already in the works, as well as Lord and Miller’s stellar track record so far when it comes to constructing massively successful franchise pictures, the recent success of The LEGO Movie is intriguing to say the least. There is no doubt that Lord and Miller’s newest picture is a success as a film, offering some of the best choreographed animated sequences in an animated feature since Pixar’s Toy Story 3, all of it backed up by a deep well of intelligence and a hyper-articulate screenplay. However, the fact that the film is also designed to sell a high commodity product is unnerving, betraying the very concept of film as art by denigrating the film to the status of cultural currency, ready made catch phrases, shallow sing-along musical numbers, and a plethora of screen print trademark t-shirts preloaded into its very structure. There is also the overwhelmingly positive reception that the film garnered leading up to its initial release only a few weeks ago, seeming almost pre-designed and coordinated by the producers backing the film in order to sell a picture that, presumably, a large amount of the film’s core audience already wanted to see. The LEGO Movie is one of the most successful and critically lauded genre pictures to be released over the past couple of years, owing largely to its built-in marketing campaign, which makes much of the film’s broader lasting appeal ring hollow and vaguely sinister.

All of this is not to say, however, that Lord and Miller’s new film is un-enjoyable. On the contrary, The LEGO Movie is the most fun that you could possibly have at a movie theatre, pulling from the large history of genre pictures in order to appease its assumed audience of sci-fi and fantasy geeks, eager to consume large amounts of Star Wars and Batman gags that refer to the very films that they hold the most near and dear. The film also pitches itself incredibly well to its marketed audience of families with young children, delivering an easy to digest narrative supported by uncomplicated metaphors and action centered fight sequences, making it immediately pleasing and fun to watch. However, the level to which the film engages in post-modern self-reference is ultimately shallow, betraying its larger purpose as deceptive advertising. Unlike 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, which also depended on allusions and a vast knowledge of the history of its pre-established genre, Lord and Miller are trapped by the very same intelligence that makes their film so enjoyable, never moving beyond meta-narrative allusion towards a more all encompassing grasp of the larger world. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The LEGO Movie is the best film to come out so far this year by and for an American audience; what’s not so certain is whether or not that’s a good thing.