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

Shin Godzilla (2016)

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fourstar

30+ entries into the Godzilla franchise, it’s funny to think that the longest-running film series of all time would still be able to surprise its audience, especially after all of the violent/philosophical/chaotic/campy/what-have-you places it’s already gone in the past. That’s why I was shocked & amused that the franchise’s latest Japanese reboot, helmed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka That Thing from Tumblr that Baffles Me), was entirely different from the kaiju genre piece I was expecting when I entered the theater. Shin Godzilla is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of following Gareth Edwards’s mistake in recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.

In an American production the tendency would be to push for a lone hero to save Japan from its kaiju problem. A Japanese film about Japanese temperament, Shin Godzilla instead looks for the virtues in collaboration & the power of the hive mind collective. It’s largely in the first half of the film where this kind of political philosophy is played for satirical humor. A condemnation of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the film follows a bewildered Japanese government as they hold meetings upon meetings upon meetings about what to do about Godzilla in a process that produces inaction through belabored decision-making on what exact action to take. By the time any order is given the situation has shifted and the multilayered meetings & special emergency councils start all over again, like a rotary dial. Everyone is fearful of “rushing to judgement” and reads their opinions directly from print-out reports, so that nothing ever gets done in a Kafkaesque political process that goes in circles chasing its own tail. This slow process is depicted through the quick edits of a modern comedy, producing an interesting dynamic in its form vs. content divide. What’s even more interesting is how that dynamic evolves along with its titular laser-shooting monster. The ever-shifting official titles for the government’s ranks-climbing employees and their special councils & task forces for the “unidentified creature emergency” stop being played for laughs at a certain point and the tone understandably becomes morbid. Somehow even the slow, measured groupthink satirized in the first half is explained to have its own virtue and is eventually celebrated, especially in comparison with the rash, easy-fix violence proposed by foreign bodies like America & the UN. It’s a much more thoughtful & nuanced mode of political self-reflection than I ever would have expected from a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, I guess it would be a shame to review a Godzilla movie without talking about Godzilla itself. Like with Pulgasari & Hedorah, the kaiju in Shin Godzilla is a rapidly evolving creature that starts off pathetically ineffective & maybe even a little cute. That is, if anything that could be described as a lopsided feline turkey with dead fish eyes & blood-gushing gills could be considered “cute.” When Godzilla reaches its final form it’s named “God incarnate” out of respect for its adaptability & its capacity for survival, but it starts as a half-formed, difficult to look at mess of mismatched biology. It’s a stumbling weakling that only makes it more frustrating when bureaucratic inaction allows it to evolve & soldier on into near-immortality. The film’s CG renderings of its creature-driven mayhem can come across as a little cheap or odd-looking, recalling the bizarre digital imagery of titles like Big Man Japan, but it’s no more visibly artificial than the costumes & miniatures of the Godzillas of old, all things considered. Also, Godzilla’s final form is so undeniably badass that the film’s digital means aren’t really worth questioning or nitpicking. Like with most Godzilla films, the creature is second to the concerns of humanity’s response to its presence here, but when the god lizard is in action it’s just as weirdly fascinating as ever. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow.

There wasn’t a whole lot of laughter at our fairly well-attended Shin Godzilla screening, which means either that I’m exaggerating the film’s merit as a political comedy or that the satire isn’t translating consistently well across cultural lines. It’s been reported that Anno specifically wrote the film as a response to the government’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiishi disaster, where a tsunami caused a full-blown nuclear meltdown in Japan. I’m sure there’s plenty of rewarding political subtext you could read in Shin Godzilla‘s take on that tragedy, but it has a much wider scope of intent than merely addressing that one issue. Everything from Japan’s general foreign policy to the looming shadow of Hiroshima to the country’s very sense of national identity is tackled here. Shin Godzilla barrels through all of these ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the experimental framing & mixed medium experimentation (including moments of found footage aesthetic) of an indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could, no matter what some audiences seem to believe they want from the franchise. Outside of a few clunky details like a stray stumbling in screensaver-quality CGI or a goddawful stab at an American accent, this is Godzilla done exactly right. Its philosophical ideas are enthusiastic & exciting and the monster exists only to serve them, the exact ideal for a creature feature not aiming for cheap genre thrills or easy camp.

-Brandon Ledet

Le cinque giornate (aka The Five Days, 1973)

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three star

And now for something completely different.

Following the conclusion of his “Animal Trilogy,” Dario Argento declared that his time as a giallo director had come to an end. From a modern perspective, this seems as preposterous as Alfred Hitchcock declaring he would begin focusing solely on period romantic comedies in the wake of the success of Psycho, John Malkovich leaving the world of acting to become a puppeteer, or schlockmeister Eli Roth making a family movie about, like, child spies or something. Historically, however, this kind of move is not without precedent; David Cronenberg, for instance, ditched a lifetime career of making body horror flicks to focus on prestige pictures (with mixed success), and many actors have made the leap from on-camera to behind-the-camera work. This change didn’t work out so well for Argento, however, who went back to his wheelhouse for his fifth picture.

Argento’s three previous pictures were domestic successes with great international interest; his fourth film, the first non-giallo, was his first commercial failure. For his fourth film, he chose to make a period piece comedy set during the first Italian War for Independence, with obvious influences from spaghetti westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, which Argento had worked on before embarking on his own directorial career. I mentioned in my review of Four Flies on Grey Velvet that in his earlier efforts, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento shot duplicate footage of newspapers and notes with the text in English to prepare for international release. Le cinque giornate (The Five Days), on the other hand, was created without any apparent interest in release outside of Italy, as it focuses on a relatively unknown (outside of Argento’s home country) minor historical event: a five day seige during the late 1840s in which the citizenry of Milan drove Austrian soldiers out of the city. As a concept, there’s a lot of potential there. In execution, however… not so much.

The film follows Cainazzo (Adriano Celentano, who is best well known in Italy as a musical performer), an incarcerated petty thief who is freed when revolutionaries blow a hole in the wall of the prison. He escapes and begins searching for his former partner, Zampino (Glauco Onorato), to collect on his half of the score that landed him in jail. He discovers other former compatriots taking advantage of the democratic revolution to plunder the homes of rich and poor alike; they tell him that Zampino has become an important figure in the revolt and is now known by the name “Liberty.” He is identified as a criminal in the street, and he attempts to take refuge in a bakery, but it is destroyed by the inept baker Romolo (Enzo Cerusico), a naive Roman city “boy” (Cerusico was 37 at the time) who mishandles the oven. Together, the two make their way across the city and through a series of interactions and adventures, encountering scenarios both humorous and depressing.

I have long theorized that international comedies are less successful than intercultural dramatic films or literature because drama is much more universal than comedy, which is more culturally determined. Drama is wrung from things that we all share or with which we can empathize, even if the cultural specifics are different. A Korean film about struggling for parental approval, a German film about grappling with the death of a spouse, a Brazilian film about growing up and losing one’s innocence–all of these have themes that transcend national and cultural boundaries, even if the idiosyncrasies and specifics are unfamiliar. But an anime about bakers that features puns that work in the original Japanese but not in translation, or an Australian feature that requires historical knowledge about class differences in Sydney? Not as accessible for someone outside of that culture and its accompanying situated knowledge. For that reason, I’m willing to cut Days some slack, even though it was a mostly forgettable film. It’s crime isn’t being bad, per se; it’s being boring.

The comedy featured here is a little broad for my taste. The first scene in the film features Cainazzo striking a rat which has gotten too close and flinging it away, where it lands in the mouth of another prisoner, who is asleep. Later, Cainazzo and Romolo assist a woman (Luisa De Santis) in giving birth, and the vignette kicks into high gear as the duo’s actions are shot in fast motion and accompanied by accelerated ragtime music. Later still, the duo is enlisted in the creation of a barricade under the guidance of the disconnected and airheaded Contessa (Marilu Tolo), and Romolo accidentally seduces the widow of a hanged traitor (Carla Tato), as she is aroused by his recitation of different types of bread.

And then Romolo is murdered by a firing squad, for accidentally killing an aristocrat while saving a young woman from being raped.

The film is a series of vignettes that are ostensibly comedic (Romolo is forever mispronouncing Cainazzo’s name–hahaha), but are at other times remarkably insightful or emotionally devastating. While squatting in what they assume to be an abandoned mansion for an evening, Cainazzo and Romolo are greeted by grotesque parodies of aristocratic indulgence who nonetheless are right in their declaration that the so-called “People’s Revolution” will do nothing to uplift the downtrodden or poor. A scene ends with a young child shrieking in anguish over the body of his mother, a collateral victim of Austrian violence. What I would normally describe as tonal inconsistency actually seems to be a deliberate attempt to induce emotional whiplash to illustrate extreme nihilism. Nowhere is this more clear than when Cainazzo, after nearly five days of near-misses, is finally reunited with Zampino, only to learn that the people’s hero, the icon of liberty, is actually working with the hated Austrians and is both a traitor and a war profiteer. At the end of the film, Cainazzo delivers his final line, “You’ve all been tricked!” to a waiting crowd of energetic Milanians, flush with patriotic fervor, and he’s right: the Austrians may have retreated, but the revolution is a lie.

In the abstract, this all sounds like an enjoyable, even thought-provoking film. In practice, however, it’s a bore. Objectively, the film falls just short of two hours, but the pacing is so poor and the cinematography so blasé that, subjectively, you feel that you’ve actually been staring at the screen for an interminable five days. Outside of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I don’t think I’ve ever checked my watch so frequently in my life. Argento’s penchant for dynamic camera work is completely missing in this laborious picaresque; the film feels like a cheap and straightforward product for consumption, like something that was assembled and packaged on the made-for-television production line. There are elements that work, but overall, this is a film that is formless and unappealing, and you can’t chalk that up entirely to cultural dissonance; even Italian audiences and critics savaged the film, and Argento went straight back to work on giallo films afterwards, beginning production of what many consider to be his masterpiece, Profondo rosso. Only one DVD pressing of the film was ever released, in Europe, so tracking down this movie isn’t easy (I was lucky enough to find a VHS copy at Austin’s premiere rental outlet, Vulcan Video). I say: don’t bother.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond