It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971)

Between the over-the-top caricatures of Christopher Guest comedies, the alarmist naturesploitation horror of The Hellstrom Chronicle, and the vile oil industry propaganda of Louisiana Story, I’ve seen the mockumentary format used for a wide range of tones & purposes.  As disparate as those movies are, though, they’re all decidedly insincere.  They imitate the methods and intellectual authority of documentary films to say things they do not really mean, whether for amusement or for profit.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fully sincere mockumentary before recently checking out the 1971 political bombthrower It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, which made it difficult to pinpoint the film’s intent in its early scenes.  It is so militant and inflammatory in its political rhetoric that I initially assumed the film was being flippantly ironic, contrasting its narrator’s attacks on the middle-class gays of 1970s Berlin against images that celebrated their lives & fashion.  By the time the film concludes on a lengthy, didactic call-to-action, however, there is no question that it is 100% serious in its seething distaste for queer ambitions to assimilate into “normal” society instead of radically reforming it.  It’s surprisingly convincing in its arguments too, even if its politics and its imagery feel self-contradictory.

It is Not the Homosexual is an explicitly Marxist call-to-arms that ridicules Berlin gays for wanting to assimilate into the bourgeoisie instead of organizing to tear it down.  It is incendiary enough to wildly overstep its bounds, frequently coming across as outright homophobic (and transphobic to boot) despite obviously being rooted in the community it’s critiquing.  True activism is often ugly & combative, though, and there’s something admirable about its willingness to throw punches for the sake of gay liberation even when they hit the wrong targets.  It’s easy to cringe at the narrator’s assertion that gay marriage is a “ridiculous imitation” of a heterosexual institution.  It’s even easier roll your eyes at the hardline stance that all art must be outright rejected by queer radicals, as it is a leisure activity of the wealth class (a stance that is in direct conflict with director Rosa von Praunheim’s background in fringe avant-garde cinema).  Getting indignant over those deliberate provocations would have you overlook legitimate calls for the gay men of Berlin to come out of the closet, or to establish political solidarity with the Black Panthers and the Women’s Lib movement.  In its broadest strokes, it’s making the same righteously leftist political maneuvers that Tongues Untied made nearly two decades later, or that modern Twitter activists make against the liberal assimilation politics of Mayo Pete in the 2020s.  It’s just willing to jab its own potential comrades in an attempt to wake them up and get them pissed.

The film also doubles as a genuine documentary of early-70s gay culture in Berlin, despite its intent to radically overhaul it.  Even while the narrator is deriding the over-the-top fashion, tea-room cruising, and drag bar pageantry of the scene, you’re constantly aware that the footage that illustrates those bullet points is invaluable documentation of gay culture at that exact place & time.  The flat, inflectionless delivery of the narration compounds the tension between image & intent, explaining how to live a more virtuous gay life in the style of a vintage 1950s hygiene reel.  It’s often been referred to as a “camp” film as a result, but I believe its political intent is sincere.  It was so sincere, in fact, that it’s credited for igniting the modern gay liberation movement in Germany, becoming a legitimate part of history beyond just being an incidental historical document.  So, here we have a mockumentary that is both a genuine documentary and a sincere political manifesto.  It’s too firmly tethered to a fictional narrative to be understood as an essay film—structuring its tour of Berlin gay life through the assimilation of a fictional character named Daniel—and yet it operates like no other mockumentary I can name.  Even if it weren’t for its record, rejection, and alteration of German queer culture a half-century ago, the film would still be highly significant for the way it toys with tone & form.  Rosa von Praunheim’s political convictions are just so furious & clearly defined that you have to confront the ideas before you can scrutinize how they’re delivered.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

The single-camera mockumentary has become such a common genre over the past couple decades through sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family that it’s hard to remember a time when it was more of an outlier than the norm.  We’re familiar enough with the mockumentary format now to immediately understand the way they play with our perceptions of authenticity, but there was a time (let’s clock it as pre-Best in Show) where the genre was more subversive.  There are a lot of urban legends about audiences taking early mockumentaries at face value, believing Spinal Tap to be a real band, the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Cannibal Holocaust to be real cannibals, the Blair Witch to be a real witch, etc.  I never really knew how sincerely to take those stories until I read that The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1972 Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” despite being an obvious parody of the documentary format instead of the real deal.  I assumed that factoid was a prank Wikipedia edit, but then I confirmed it on the Academy of Motion Pictures website.  A mockumentary indeed won the most prestigious industry award for documentary films, which has got to be some implication of how novel the genre used to be before Jim met Pam – novel enough, apparently, to make moviegoers believe in witchcraft & killer insects.

The Hellstrom Chronicle is a drive-in era exploitation horror about the inevitability of insects taking over the planet, recalling 1950s B-pictures like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis.  It just happens to be delivered in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary, hosted by the fictitious Dr. Nils Hellstrom, PhD (credited as a performance by actor Lawrence Pressman in the final scroll).  Hellstrom lectures for the entire 90min runtime in deliriously overwritten, Ed Woodian dialogue about how bugs are “gruesome robots” and an “infectious virus” that will soon violently overthrow humanity for planetary dominance if we don’t act soon.  These rants are illustrated by hi-fi nature footage of insects eating, mating, and waging war in the wild, scored by arhythmic drums & winding strings to emphasize their gnarly brutality.  The opening credits thank well-respected universities and research institutions to feign an air of legitimacy, but by the time Hellstrom is opining about how termite mounds are primitive computers built to calculate our collective doom, it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously.  Screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Willy Wonka, Bird on a Wire) is obviously just amusing himself with how far he can push the film’s central conceit without fully tipping into comedic parody, and it’s a pure-trash joy to tag along for the indulgence.

To the Academy’s credit, The Hellstrom Chronicle did eventually prove to be prescient of where documentary filmmaking was heading, at least the version of documentary filmmaking you’ll find on basic cable.  It particularly recalls the ominous pseudoscience of Discovery Channel & History Channel programs, where facts are allowed to be fuzzy as long as they freak out the audience enough to keep them hanging on through commercial brakes.  Pair that basic-cable sensationalism with William Herzog’s deadpan rants about the cold cruelty of Nature, and you pretty much have The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s basic blueprint.  It’s not actually useful or even functional as an educational tool about the resiliency of insects, nor does it really pretend to be.  Halfway into the runtime, it gets bored with sticking to pure nature footage and takes self-amusing detours into classic horror movie clips and candid camera pranks.  It’s less appropriate for the classroom than it is for late-night “Bad Movie” parties, so you can have a laugh making your roommate paranoid about killer ants between bong rips.  Phase IV might as well have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  They’re working with about the same level of authentic, scientifically presented nature footage, and the one that was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely the one that’s more realistic about the collective killing power of ants as a species.  Not for nothing, they’re also both great films.

-Brandon Ledet

The Medium (2021)

In the abstract, giving The Exorcist a found-footage update for the 2020s sounds tedious, but The Medium manages to feel freshly upsetting & emotionally engaged while never drifting outside those genre boundaries.  It helps that the film was produced by Na Hong-jin, director of 2016’s The Wailing – the last great Exorcist-scale possession horror to rejuvenate the genre.  In the early stages of development, Na proposed that Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun collaborate with him on a direct sequel to The Wailing (presumably on the strength of Banjong’s breakthrough hit Shutter), but the concept gradually spiraled out into its own unique horror epic separate from that source of inspiration.  Considering the limitations of its initial concept, the general over-saturation of body-possession & found-footage horror media, and its 30-day shooting schedule, The Medium is impressively massive in its scope & imagination.  This is big-scale blockbuster horror achieved on a scrappy indie budget, and it still manages to be scary as hell.

The Exorcist looms too large in horror iconography for any possession story to avoid the comparison, but The Medium does more to stray from Friedkin’s genre blueprint than simply exporting it to international religious contexts outside the original’s Catholicism.  Stretching its legs with a 131min runtime helps create enough space for the film to distinguish itself from that ancestry, as does its modern-documentary framing device (which obviously triggers its own preloaded horror canon comparisons).  We get to know the mockumentary’s subjects for a long while before the supernatural terror escalates to a fever pitch, which helps lay a solid emotional foundation most modern horrors don’t bother building.  It’s the story of a small family in the rural region of Isan, Thailand, whose women pass down the spirit (and professional occupation) of a shaman through generational inheritance.  While the current shaman’s niece seems to be inheriting that spirit as the next natural successor, it turns out the spirit taking root in her body is something much more sinister.  Deadly hijinks ensue, despite the shaman-aunt’s best efforts to exorcise the unwanted presence from her innocent niece’s body.

For all its ambitious scale & intimate familial drama, The Medium is most impressive for its efficiency in delivering every possible genre payoff it can squeeze into its spacious runtime.  It attempts eerie atmospheric dread and cheap-thrills jump scares.  It genuinely engages with the emotional drama at the core of its spiritual inheritance story and indulges in squirmy cultural taboos that would turn off most horror naysayers.  It’s also not afraid to invite comparisons to iconic touchstones of the found-footage canon – including the shaky-cam nature runs of The Blair Witch Project, the night-vision security footage of Paranormal Activity, and the vertical smartphone aspect ratios of the genre’s current “screenlife” era.  Still, it throws so much supernatural mayhem at the screen in its go-for-broke third act that it manages to do things I’ve never seen in any found footage movie before, especially in the way its possessed victims directly, violently interact with the camera crew & their equipment.  The actual possession half of its hybrid-genre is less surprising in its execution, but it’s remarkably upsetting & brutal all the same.

I’m glad we were gifted The Medium instead of The Wailing Part II: Possession Boogaloo, as initially planned.  Then again, I would’ve also been skeptical of the final product’s “found-footage Exorcist” premise had I not seen the results.  This is one of those shining examples of how little a movie’s chosen genre template actually affects its overall quality.  It’s all in the execution, and this particular Exorcist deviation is executed with both fury & elegance.

-Brandon Ledet

Getting Go: The Go Doc Project (2013)

The third film in my recent exploration of Tubi’s LGBTQIA+ section (following Is It Just Me? and Go Go Crazy) Getting Go, the Go Doc Project also features go-go dancing as a key part of its narrative makeup. It shares more than a few other similarities with Is It Just Me? as well, although it’s a much better film.

Our primary lead, known only as “Doc” (Tanner Cohen) is a country mouse close to finishing up his college education in New York. He has a vlog in which he talks about his life and, oddly, masturbates for the pleasure of his followers; he’s not a camboy and doesn’t seem to get any real pleasure from his exhibitionism, but as long as he’s laying his life bare for his 35ish viewers, he might as well go all the way. He’s looking for love but mostly experiencing infatuation, and the latest object of his affection is a popular go-go dancer identified only as “Go” (Matthew Camp). While drunk one night, Doc emails Go and tells him that he’s working on his final project before graduation, a documentary, and Doc wants to make it about him. Although he’s embarrassed when he recovers from his blackout and checks his outbox, Doc is pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Go, who agrees to the arrangement after very little convincing (and a promise of a 5% cut of any profits). Doc borrows a camera from a friend and starts shooting almost immediately, capturing an intimate slice of life that grows into something more as the two men start to fall for each other.

If Matthew Camp’s name sounds familiar to you, there are multiple reasons why this might be the case. It could be because you like porn (and no shame here), or because you’re familiar with his fashion brand, Daddy Couture, or from the British reality show Slag Wars. Or perhaps you heard about the recent arson of his Poughkeepsie home just a couple of months ago. Among gay porn performers, his penetration of the mainstream is possibly the deepest since Jeff Stryker appeared in Zombie 4: After Death, or that time Colby Keller showed up on EastSiders and High Maintenance. As the co-host of podcast Happie Campers, Camp shows that he’s more than just a pretty face and a hardbody, as the show aims to destigmatize sex work alongside recapitulating stories about “whirlwind[s] of lube, strip teases, and lots of nipple play” as well as “intellectual conversations about owning your sexuality.”

The last of these is an important element in Getting Go in more ways than one. Doc, for all of his book learning, is old fashioned and often ignorant. When Go asks him what his thesis for his documentary is, Doc declares that he intends to demonstrate that the ultimate goal of queer liberation must be assimilation, an idea to which Doc immediately (and rightfully) objects. Like Blaine in Is It Just Me?, what Doc wants is safe, solid monogamy, and there’s no shame in wanting that for oneself (like I said before, I do), but that doesn’t mean that any one person gets to decide that for anyone else. I was surprised to hear Go actually call Doc’s point of view “colonial,” given that films in this genre (and, as previously stated, on Tubi of all places) rarely exist in an intersectional space that even alludes to oppression as systemic and institutional. Go tells Doc that his way of thinking, that envisions a future of Polo-and-khakis normies as the end goal of the Gay Agenda, “castrates queer culture and humanity at large.”

This is foreshadowed early on, even before the two meet, when Doc finds a photo of Go online and edits it; in time lapse, he not only removes Go’s jock strap and photoshops a dick onto him, but he also airbrushes out all of the little “imperfections,” like moles and scars. For Doc, Go is nothing more than an image for his spank bank, at least at first. As the two get to know each other better and grow closer, Go challenges Doc’s preconceptions about what “love” has to look like, what it has to call itself and how it declares its presence, or what forms it can take. It’s hard for Doc to expand his internal schemas, but Go breaks through his barriers and Doc has his first time going all the wayon camera, no lessand it’s tender and sweet. Once this milestone passes, one half-expects the standard rom com plot to kick in: Go finds out that Doc has been lying this whole time, there’s an emotional confrontation, they break up, they spend some time apart, and then they get back together to live ambiguously ever after. That’s not what happens here. Instead, Doc walks in on Go with a trick, and the two argue about Go’s work, which Doc has largely ignored is sex work. Go comforts him and admits he always knew Doc’s true intentions but that he actually liked Doc from the start, so he went along with the documentary lie to spend time with him. This argument results in the two of them not seeing each other for a while, but they reunite before Doc moves out to Iowa to follow the next step on his academic journey, amicable ever after.

It’s shocking how much better this film is than either of the other two hosted-by-Tubi flicks I recently saw. It’s not a masterpiece, but like Go himself, it’s happy to be a different animal altogether, surprisingly thoughtful and ahead of its time. It doesn’t use the conventional trappings that one would expect for what is, at its core, a romance, and the choice to do it both in handheld and as a documentary not only makes sense financially but allows a clean break from the tired tropes of that genre. That documentary style also allows for the lines between fiction and reality to blur. In one scene, Go explains the meanings of several parts of his sleeve tattoo (which are of course Camp’s actual tattoos) so as he elaborates on what they represent to him, it’s almost if we’re seeing Camp here, not Go. I’d also wager that Go’s apartment is also Camp’s real place; there’s a messy verisimilitude to it, and given that Camp’s recently burned house was once the home and gathering place of Church of Satan member Joe “Netherworld” Mendillo, you know he’s into some spooky stuff, which would explain the amount of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise scattered around. Neither Camp nor Cohen had ever played the lead in anything before or since Getting Go, and they both give mixed-to-good performances that are very strong in places and for large sections but occasionally slightly off-center; luckily, the faux documentary format covers these small sins.

The soundtrack is fantastic; that’s good news as this is a montage-heavy movie, which is its largest detraction. There are a bunch of great, frenetic electronic tracks from 3 Teens Kill 4 and s/he, as well as multiple songs from both Big Boys and The Irrepressibles, and that energy helps propel you through a lot of Go dancing and the two leads walking aimlessly around New York. If you have a tendency to space out, you’re going to have a hard time staying focused. As an example, towards the end of the movie, Patrick Wolf’s “Overture” (which clocks in at 4:43) plays in its entirety over a montage of Doc and Go making out in various places around NYC. So if this sounds like your kind of movie and you like music videos in the middle of your sex-positive lately-coming-of-age romance, you’re in for a treat.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Go Go Crazy (2011)

In my Is It Just Me? review, I talked about TLA, Breaking Glass, and their domination of the 2005ish-2016ish era of gay cinema. TLA Releasing, at least, managed to put out the occasional queer prestige piece (like Mysterious Skin and, to a lesser extent, Latter Days, both of which came out in 2004 and helped pave the way for TLA to reach a larger audience), but Breaking Glass can’t make the same claim. If you go to the IMDb list of their films, no matter how you organize it—user ratings, popularity, number of votes, box officeyou’ll be hard pressed to find a single release on the first page that you recognize, with the possible exceptions of Breaking Through and Cropsey (which isn’t even gay), and even then, I doubt it. As such, it should come as no surprise if you’ve never heard of Go Go Crazy, a mockumentary about five Pittsburgh go-go dancers who are competing for the top slot and a $1000 prize.

We’ve got Vinnie T (Nick Kenkel), who dreams of one day becoming a professional karaoke star and who has styled himself after the participants of Jersey Shore, which, as all of us in 2021 know, is a reference that has withstood the test of time. We’ve also got ex-Amish pretty boy Chase (Paul Cereghino), a fatphobic, unabashedly racist dillweed with a Travolta-in-Grease pomp; there’s Connor (Ryan Windish), a Speedo-stuffing straight bartender at the Trocadero, the bar where the competition is being held; Kiernon (Michael Cusumano), an Eastern European ballet dancer who dreams of creating a dance production out of a traumatic bear attack that he suffered; and finally there’s Broadway hopeful Ken (Eric Spear), who plays the Pollyanna of the group and has no other personality traits. Judging the competition are Weinsteinian bar owner Hank (Rick Crom), Celine Dion impersonator “embodier” Tina Perkins (Christina Bianco), and the previous year’s winner Blake Goldenrod (actual gay porn star Jake Steel); the event is hosted by green-wigged drag queen Hedda Lettuce (billed as herself), and rounding out the cast is stagehand Simon (Derek St. Pierre), who is “dating” (read: being taken advantage of by) Chase.

A go-go mockumentary isn’t a bad idea, especially given the time of the movie’s release. By 2011, The Office was in its sixth season and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family were in their second or third; the format was reaching heights of popularity that were previously undreamt of. What the film is most clearly attempting (and failing) to imitate, however, is 2000’s Best in Show, or perhaps a lighter, softer version of 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, as indicated by the outlandishness of the character types present in the former and the local competition setting of the latter. Both films were cult touchstones for young queer cinephiles, and their legacy (if not their quality) is on full display here. The problem is that there are no characters who are engaging. Sure, Kirstie Alley’s overzealous stage mom character in Gorgeous isn’t “likable” in the traditional sense, and there are a lot of bitchy queens popping off all over Show, but they’re fun. The characters in Go Go Crazy are neither. The LGBTQIA+ community has long been one that embraces wit and witticisms as a core part of the social space, but it’s also well-known that there are those for whom simply being mean is treated as a replacement for having a personality, especially among those who equate camp bitchiness with comedy but don’t really understand the artistry behind a well-crafted and delivered bon mot, as opposed to face value racism and unclever pettiness.

It’s a kind of mean streak without cleverness that is a throughline in Go Go Crazy. We’re clearly supposed to love to hate Chase, but in reality, we just hate him. That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional joke that not only lands but works, but they are few and far between. The comedy of an American who doesn’t understand the difference between the state of Georgia and the nation of the same name (or who has never heard of the latter), from which Kiernon hails, is always good for a wry smile if nothing else. Too often, though, the film’s attempts to squeeze comedy out of the kind of pranks that were cliché in the 1980s, like putting itching powder in a competitor’s jock strap* or greasing up the pole before a rival’s dance to prevent them from finishing their routine, fall flat on their face. This is a relic of a film, a pseudo-raunchy sex comedy that’s actually fairly tame outside of its references to Hank’s sexual-predation-as-business-practice, which is itself treated glibly by the narrative in a way that is wouldn’t be now (and shouldn’t have been then). Go Go Crazy gets by solely on the physiques of its cast, which was already a weak draw in 2011 and is even less so now, when pornography has become widespread and available to just about everyone on a device that they keep in their pockets. Worse still, the version on Tubi has some really notable technical issues, including multiple instances of audio errors where it’s clear that the actor had micing problems, and where ADR should have been used if they weren’t going to do another take. I’m not sure if this is a Tubi problem or if it’s present in other releases (like the DVD), but it’s very noticeable and lends the production an amateurish feeling, which is shocking given that late director Fred M. Caruso’s previous film, The Big Gay Musical, had better, more professional production value.

Even as a piece of queer cinema history, it’s not that valuable. Like a TLA release, the eye-candy cast of this one is, unsurprisingly, made up of cast members that lack a headshot on IMDb. Even if you feel like taking a trip back through time, this is one to avoid.

*Bizarrely, this was also a plot point in Is It Just Me?, as a petty revenge ploy by Blaine against Cameron when he thought Cameron had hooked up with Xander, just in case you forgot that Blaine is a terrible person.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

To Die For (1995)

Nicole Kidman stars in Gus Van Sant’s tabloids-obsessed erotic thriller To Die For as a local cable Weather Girl from the suburbs who cons metalhead teenage dirtbags into murdering her husband. It is maybe the most purely 90s Movie I’ve caught up with since the 90s ended, having blindly stumbled upon it as a recent thrift store purchase because I dug Kidman’s lewk on the poster. Her costars include Ultra 90s sitcom performers Wayne Knight (Seinfeld), Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), George Segal (Just Shoot Me!), and the never-less-than-stellar Illeana Douglas (who had at least one guest spot on any TV show you can name) among Van Sant’s usual movie-star caliber cast of players. Arriving just one year after Pulp Fiction, it experiments with the scrambled timeline messiness that became inescapably popular in a post-Tarantino world, applying it to the Joe Eszterhaz era erotic thriller, as defined by 90s titles like Showgirls & Basic Instinct. Danny Elfmann provided the score, which can’t help but recall the 90s suburbia fantasy worlds he helped establish for Tim Burton in titles like Edward Scissorhands & Beetlejuice (which spilled over into the decade in its animated Saturday Morning Cartoon form). The only way To Die For could be more quintessentially 90s is if it were Clueless and, even then, both films share their casting of Dan Hedaya as a disgruntled dad.

Beyond its immersion in contemporary aesthetics & personae, To Die For is distinctly 90s on a philosophical level in its bottomless appetite for tabloid sensationalism. Vanity Fair dubbed the 90s to be The Tabloid Decade in its 1999 retrospective on how news media had changed over those ten years (which makes sense given that it was the decade when the O.J. Simpson trial kicked off the 24-hour News Cycle, bringing tabloid journalism into every American’s living room on a round-the-clock routine). Energized by that growing cultural obsession with Celebrity Criminals, Nicole Kidman plays a tabloid superstar who recalls archetypes of the era like Lorena Bobbitt, Patsy Ramsey, and Tonya Harding (which makes it fitting that I, Tonya later copied from this movie wholesale and turned every last interesting thing about it into a tactless embarrassment). The novel Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from was even “loosely” based on a real-life tabloid sensation: Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire high school employee who really did seduce her school’s least respected teens into murdering her husband. Although Smart was not a Weather Girl in real life, contemporary audiences still would have recognized the iconography of her crime from the supermarket magazine racks and instantly known where this story is headed, so Henry & Van Sant waste no time taking them there. The movie begins with Kidman being mobbed by paparazzi at her husband’s funeral. Her fame is then projected on tabloid magazine-inspired opening credits so intensely up-close that they resemble a Roy Lichtenstein print in motion. A fictional headline that reads “Sex, Violence, and the Weather” could have served as an alternate title if Van Sant really wanted to commit to this sadistic tabloid obsessiveness (it’s what the Lifetime Channel version of the movie would have done, anyway), but we still get the point without him going there.

Since the Pamela Smart story was already familiar to the point where it was practically a modern folktale, To Die For is less about the surprise of her life’s twists than it is about the alluring idiosyncrasies of her character. Kidman’s persona in the film feels like a Mainstream Hollywood mutation of the fame-seeking anti-heroines of John Waters’s oeuvre: Pink Flamingos‘s Babs Johnson, Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport, Cecil B. Demented‘s Honey Whitlock, etc. She is desperate to be a famous TV personality at any cost. At first, her path to achieving that dream seems to be exhibiting her bombshell good looks on a local cable network’s news show as their eye-candy Weather Girl. Murdering her husband was only a necessary insurance measure, since he disapproved of her leveraging that gig into bigger opportunities that might have come along – preferring that she settle for becoming a stay-at-home mother instead. It turns out, though, that the murder itself was a much quicker path to televised fame. There’s a noticeable thrill that lights up her eyes once she realizes that the world’s attention is glued to her misdeeds on the screen (and on supermarket magazine racks). By 1995, neither celebrating nor satirizing the attention-seeking narcissism of tabloid-friendly criminals were especially novel; Waters alone was nine features deep on the topic with Serial Mom the year before. Still, the specific textures of Smart’s bizarre circumstances, Kidman’s sweetly cruel performance, and Van Sant’s playfully ironic (and, frankly, patronizing) tone make the film a sadistic delight.

The only hiccup I have with my enjoyment of To Die For is the way Gus Van Sant plays with the order of events. His mix of mockumentary and traditional narrative filmmaking styles is generally fun to watch, but there is a jerky stop-and-start rhythm to their assemblage that makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in the story being told. Otherwise, I’m totally on board with this film as an exercise in 90s-specific aesthetics, especially in its harsh contrast between Kidman’s bubbly femininity and the speed metal riffs that frequently interrupt Elmann’s whimsical score. The film only becomes more impressive the longer you dwell on how I, Tonya disastrously attempted to repeat every single trick in its playbook (which becomes apparent as soon as Illeana Douglas begins conducting her “interviews” from an ice-skating rink) but stumbled on a hypocritical tact of audience-blaming that blew up the entire balancing act. By contrast, Van Sant openly indulges in being captivated by the Pamela Smart story, shamelessly burrowing into its most sordid details and cruelly poking fun at the small-town simplicity of its central players. It might not be as Moral of an approach as the audience shaming finger-wagging of I, Tonya, but it’s at least an honest one. To Die For captures a very specific time in tabloid criminal celebrity by genuinely participating in its full allure, like a Lifetime Original Movie that happens to feature actual movie stars. If nothing else, it’s easily among the career best outings for both Kidman & Van Sant, who have plenty of formidable contenders for that honor.

-Brandon Ledet

Mister America (2019)

Over a year ago, Tim Heidecker posted a video on his Instragram account stating that he was running for District Attorney of San Bernardio County, California. Truthfully, I had no idea if this announcement was some sort of joke or if he was legitimately running for a political office.  For those who are familiar with Heidecker’s unique style of comedy (best conveyed on the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), he walks a thin line between reality and satire, so my confusion was completely reasonable. Almost a year later, the movie Mister America was released, confirming that Tim was not really running for DA last year. He was working on a mockumentary and releasing social media clips that would eventually become part of this feature film. The whole situation is wild and extremely hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with his comic genius. Last Wednesday, The Broad Theater had a one-night screening of the completed film, which I ab-so-lutely attended along with about twenty other fans of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show universe. It was by far the best comedy to come out this year.

Eric Notarnicola, the director of Mister America, is no stranger to Tim Heidecker’s hijinks. He also directed a few television and web series starring Heidecker: Decker, On Cinema at the Cinema, and The Trial, all of which reappear in Mister America at one point or another. While it is helpful to already be a fan of these Notarnicola-directed series with Heidecker (especially On Cinema) prior to watching the film, I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the On Cinema Universe to enjoy Mister America. There’s enough background information provided throughout the movie to bring those unfamiliar with the series’ backstories up to speed. In Mister America, Heidecker is followed by a documentary crew throughout his journey of running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Without having enough signatures to be on the ballot, no volunteers, barely any campaign funds, and no legitimate political platform, Heidecker has a tough time getting his campaign off the ground. To make matters worse, he has the reputation of being a murderer. While at an EDM music festival, he “supposedly” sold contaminated vape juice to several festival goers, causing them to die. His prosecutor for the case, Vincent Rosetti, is the incumbent DA of San Bernardino County, and Heidecker self-represented his defense in court during the legal battle. So with his legal self-representation experience and his connection with everyday San Bernardino citizens (he is officially a San Bernardino resident because he receives his mail at his hotel room), he truly believes that he has what is takes to beat Rosetti.

The style of humor that Mister America sells is the kind that has you cackling at the most minor details. For instance, while Heidecker is having a breakfast meeting with his campaign manager Toni (Terri Parks), he gets lost deep into his business/politician persona and can barely get his hashbrowns and eggs onto his fork. The camera kept zooming in on his fork failure, and I completely lost it. Another major player that brings the funny to this movie is mister Gregg Turkington, a regular guest on On Cinema. Turkington pops up for short interviews with the documentary crew to shit-talk Heidecker, and he always seems to come up with a bizarre movie reference for every scenario. My favorite scene with Turkington was when he tried to explain the similarities between The Shaggy D.A. and Heidecker’s campaign. He even goes so far as to bring a bootleg VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the documentary crew, which he makes clear that he needs returned ASAP.  He also has a great moment where the crew follows him trash-hunting for VHS tapes (destined to become Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.

Mister America is up there with the mockumentary greats, and it’s just a lot of stupid fun. I believe the movie theater screenings are finished, but the film is now available on demand. Trust me, it is worth every penny.

-Britnee Lombas

Born in Flames (1983)

Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.

Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.

-Brandon Ledet

Mascots (2016)

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Christopher Guest’s brilliance as a comedy director has always relied on a kind of subtlety & understatement that lends his behind-the-camera work to being overlooked. Guest’s best films, titles like Waiting for Guffman & Best in Show, are densely populated with cartoonishly over-the-top, attention-hogging characters, so the director wisely takes a back seat in a lot of his own works. He fosters an improv-loose environment & sets a distinct narrative stage for his performers in each film, but otherwise isn’t especially flashy in his own directorial style and a lot of the humor in his films is derived from that dynamic. He’s like the improv comedy version of Robert Altman. As time goes on, Guest continues to return to that tried & true formula and his work starts to feel even more understated & undervalued. The mockumentary style Guest established in his early work has since infiltrated every corner of American television. The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, the most recent version of The Muppets: Guest’s humor has almost completely replaced the traditional laugh track sitcom, so it has become even more difficult to parse out exactly what makes him special as a hand-off director with a consistently even keel. There’s no better example of what I’m describing here than Guest’s latest work, the Netflix-distributed comedy Mascots.

Mascots has been generally received with an underwhelmed shrug, largely due to the perceived career-long sameness of Christopher Guest’s catalog as a whole. In all of his films a group of hubris-oblivious weirdos in a highly specific field meet for a climactic competition where their personalities clash in both public & private forums. Instead of a dog show or bluegrass concert or an Oscars race this time, Mascots instead stages its climactic showdown at a sports mascot competition. Other than the setting, the Christopher Guest formula remains more or less the same, with the director even reprising his role as Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman (along with Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux from the same film) to drive that established tradition home. It’d be reductive to assume that because Guest continually returns to his old grooves & rhythms, though, that Mascots is worthless as a comedy. If the director has proven anything by staging all of his films in a similar fashion, it’s that the formula works. Mascots may not feel as fresh or unique as Guffman did in the early 90s, but it’s still damn funny. Its setting-specific references to “mini tramps” & “Fluffies” combine with dark, perverted tangents about furries, yeast infections, and penis-in-ear sexual intercourse to make for a bizarrely understated comedy that only doesn’t feel strange because its creator’s voice has infiltrated so much American television in the past decade that it’s started to feel normal. By the time Mascots reaches its predetermined climax it can be just as funny as any of Guest’s most well-loved films. It only feels slight due to its modern context.

If anything has shifted in Guest’s insulated world, it’s been the gradual expansion of his usual cast of weirdos. Along with Posey, the director’s regular cast of Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and whoever else fits in that specific set returns to the screen. What’s more important, though, is that Guest has picked up more weirdos along the way. Chris O’Dowd, who had worked with Guest on a short-lived HBO series, steals some spotlight from the director’s veterans as “the badboy of sports mascotery.” He’s joined by familiar character actors from shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office that have sprung up in the wake of Guest’s best-known works. He may not be an especially flashy or experimental filmmaker, but I have great respect for the consistency & the quality of laughs his films deliver, especially since he acknowledges his own influence by recruiting comedians who’ve made a name in the mockumentary television field launched in his shadow. As long as Guest wants to continue to film weirdos in highly specific fields discussing “passion” & “craft” in his tried & true mockumentary formula, I’ll continue to afford him my attention. Nothing made this so clear to me as moment during Mascots‘s climactic competition where the crowd was applauded a literal piece of shit, freshly plunged, and I felt the urge to join them. Christopher Guest has earned my laughter in any context he asks for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet