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

Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Kuso (2017)

How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. The film swirling around that moment is packed with kinky sex involving hideous boils, plucked chickens that swim like fish, faces smeared in semen & shit, and psychedelic mixed media collage art depicting entire galaxies of tits & leaking anuses. It’s almost as if the script were written by SNL’s Stefon on an especially gnarly robo-trip. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with the internet. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show. As George Clinton’s puking mutant ass-roach indicates, this film is decidedly Not For Everyone, but I was personally amused.

The secret to what makes the frantic energy of Adult Swim staples like Tim & Eric and The Eric Andre Show even endurable is that episodes typically last only ten minutes at a time instead of comedy television’s half hour standard. Stretching out that same mania to a 90min feature has been a struggle for past attempts like Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, which are brilliantly entertaining in spurts, but tend to push attention spans to the limit at full length. Kuso is smart to break down its psychedelic freak show into a series of interconnected vignettes to preempt this audience fatigue, adopting the Everything Is Connected horror anthology formula of Southbound or Trick ‘r Treat. Set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles after a cataclysmic earthquake, the film details the sordid lives of the mutated survivors, who all sport hideous boils as trophies for their perseverance. This narrative is laid out by an opening freak-jazz spoken word performance from backpack rapper Busdriver, threatening to deliver a La La Land of the Damned style musical. The stories within that structure are populated by familiar comedic faces of the Adult Swim era: Anders Holm as a shit-sniffing school teacher, Tim Heidecker as a toilet-dwelling date rapist, Hannibal Burress as a transdimensional pothead monster. Like with Pink Flamingos, their individual stories are go-nowhere pranks that don’t amount to much more than the shock of seeing a nude Heidecker hump a lump of flesh that resembles the gaming consoles from eXistenZ or two young lovers share a semen-slathered kiss. However, the audacity & the consistency of tone within its overall sense of post-apocalyptic world-building amounts to something remarkable, if not just remarkably grotesque.

One major aspect of Kuso that’s likely to get overlooked in discussions of its more scatological interests is how refreshing it is that the film is conspicuously black. The grandnephew of John Coltrane and himself a producer of hip-hop beats, Ellison sets the rhythm of this psychedelic freak fest both to the frantic energy of improvisational jazz and to the laid-back stoner vibes of modern laptop rap. Although viewers may be horrified by the image of what crawls out of his ass, George Clinton is perfectly at home within this universe, bridging the gap between those two aesthetics & serving as the patron saint of Kuso‘s particular brand of psychedelic blackness. That perspective is always underrepresented on the horror landscape, but it’s even more rare with this subgenre of extreme, gross-out horror. Ellison maintains a great sense of humor throughout the work as well. In one scene Burress’s transdimensional pot beast responds to the criticism, “This is garbage,” with a flippant “Eat ass, this is art.” He has a point, too. The intricate collage animation & grotesque puppetry that support Kuso‘s freak show delicacies with a solid visual foundation suggest a kind of grand ambition that far outweighs any problems with pacing or flat comedic bits. Kuso feels like a 2010s echo of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in that way; it’s maybe not entirely successful, but it’s incredibly ambitious in the way it reaches to forge new art forms out of unapologetically black modes of expression.

If you’re only going to watch one transcendent gross-out horror this year, I still say make it the far more successful We Are the Flesh. Kuso‘s worth giving shot as an uglier, goofier follow-up, however, especially if the first sentence of this review hasn’t already sent you running. Luckily, for your disgust & convenience, both titles are currently streaming on Shudder.

-Brandon Ledet

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet

An Ill-Advised Journey through All Craptastic Four Fantastic 4 Adaptations

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It’s gradually becoming conventional wisdom that you simply cannot make a watchable Fantastic 4 movie. For two decades running Hollywood has failed rather miserably to adapt Stan Lee’s/Jack Kirby’s half-goofy/half-gritty characters into a successful feature film, despite having much better luck with other Lee/Kirby designs such as Iron Man & The X-Men. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Fantastic 4 specifically that is so difficult to competently capture on film, despite the wild commercial success of other superhero properties. What is certain, though, is that despite the disparate variety of approaches, no adaptation has won over fans of the comics or even casual movie goers looking for mindless escapism. And it’s somehow still likely that there will be even more shoddy attempts to adapt this property in the future, despite the four already-raised red flags. Listed below is a brief review of every Fantastic 4 feature released so far, hopefully to serve as a guide for the morbidly curious.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

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three star

Perhaps the most infamously troubled Fantastic 4 adaptation of all also happens to be the one I enjoyed the most. A Roger Corman production from the mid-90s, the original Fantastic 4 movie is often rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights that he eventually put to grander use over a decade later with the 2005 adaptation. As a result to these backscene shenanigans the Corman picture never saw an official release. To this day, the film can only be viewed through bootleg VHS copies & less-than-legal YouTube uploads. There’s even a documentary in works called DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (which I’m dying to see) that’s supposed to recount the entire troubled production & intentionally bungled release, which are, in short, a jumbled mess.

What’s most surprising about this mucked-up non-release is that it’s actually a really fun picture, much unlike the three adaptations that followed. Corman’s production ignores the insanely popular trend of Burton’s Batman pictures & intentionally reverts to a time when comic book movies were still made for children. 1994’s The Fantastic Four plays like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon. Even Dr. Doom’s surveillance setup & pack of obedient goons recalls the evil Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget more than it does any other villain I can name. Sure, the costumes & effects employed here were way behind the times even for 1994 & the film was easily distracted by subplots that involved not one, but two will-they-won’t-they love stories as well as some less than compelling & entirely tangential jewel thief goblins that must’ve wandered from the set of Ernest Scared Stupid by mistake, but that’s all part of the movie’s hokey charms.

When viewed as a children’s movie instead of how we think of modern superhero fare, Corman’s The Fantastic Four is a fun little modestly-budgeted movie. There are some great cheesy lines like “Hello, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny & Susan go out into space with us?” & [flying a spaceship] “Using turn signal. Turning right.” The cheapness of some of the effects can be fun in a campy way, especially in the psychedelic outer space transformation scene where the group gains their powers (where the background looks like something you’d expect to be projected behind The Doors) & in Doom’s hand-drawn space palace. There’s also some really awkward twists on the Fantastic 4’s core members’ group dynamics, like in the revelation that Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards knew Susan “The Invisible Woman” Storm as a little girl who she had a crush on him (gross!), Ben “The Thing” Grimm’s self-hating depression cycles turning him into a silent film bum, and in an over-explained monologue that reveals that each of the 4’s powers are reflections of their personalities, (something that’s much more subtly hinted at or assumed in the films to follow). Corman’s stab at adapting The Fantastic 4 is far from a perfect picture, but it is at the very least a mildly enjoyable slice of mid-90s children’s media with a fascinating context given its troubled production & lack of an official release. That’s more than you can say for any of the other films listed here.

Fantastic 4 (2005)

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onehalfstar

If Corman’s goofy adaptation sorta worked in its decision to chase the goofy, kids’ media bent of the Fantastic 4 universe, the 2005 adaptation that it made possible fails miserably because it makes no decisions at all. The mid-00’s Fantastic 4 is remarkably bad, just awful. Even more-so, it’s a prime example of what’s terrible about Hollywood’s chase for the PG-13 movie, a grey blob of un-creativity meant more to hit every possible demographic in their wallets more than it is meant to entertain. It tries to mimic the childlike goofery of the Corman film in lines like “Why the long face?” (directed at a stretched-out Mr. Fantastic, of course) & “That’s my nose. This is my face, genius,” (in a scene where an invisible Sue Storm is being sloppily kissed, of course), but also attempts to appeal to salacious old men in a gag where Sue (played here by 00’s sexy symbol Jessica Alba) is left publicly embarrassed in her underwear, ripe for the oggling. The 2005 adptation has its foot one in, one out, trying to juggle Corman’s children’s movie with the adult Burton Batman aesthetic; it drops the ball on both ends.

One of the strangest aspects of the film is that even though it arrived with an outrageously larger budget more than a decade after Corman’s picture, its effects were not nearly as impressive. Corman’s The Fantastic Four may have looked cheap, but at least it looked cool. The only practical effects used in the 2005 film are in The Thing’s prosthetic costume, which I gotta admit I thought was kinda cool-looking in a hand-made way (although the awfulness of Michael Chiklis’ labored voice work ruined that effect). Everything else looked stuck in the late 90s, especially in the transformation scene where the crew mutates into their newly powerful bodies, where the CGI was barely a step above an old-school screensaver.

The CGI wasn’t the only thing stuck in the late 90s, either. Further solidifying the movie’s cynical grabs at the perfect PG-13 market, Fantastic 4 is crawling with dirt bikes, snowboards, pop punk, and antiquated rap rock, gasping its final breaths here in the twilight years of its heyday. Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is essentially a live-action Poochie in his 2005 incarnation, appealing to all of the cool, radical kids out there who are too X-treme for the establishment. The movie also indulges in some X-treme marketing in a single, extended scene that finds room for ad placement for ESPN, The X Games, Red Bull, Burger King, Pepsi, Sobe, Mountain Dew, Dos Equis, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. It was dizzying. There’s something very telling in that sequence’s love for X-treme branding as nearly every minute of the movie that surrounds it feels just as hollow & desperate to make a buck.

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

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onestar

Despite the mixed reviews, narrative bankruptcy, and all-around awfulness of 2005’s Fantastic 4, it was still financially successful enough to garner a sequel. X-treme marketing really works, y’all! There’s a reason studios are chasing those sweet, sweet PG-13 bucks. Two years after Johnny Storm won The X-Games, Fantastic 4 returned to the silver screen, this time with a Silver Surfer in tow. The sequel is somehow even more awful & empty than the first, its narrative hinged on a much-delayed wedding between Mr. Fantastic & Sue Storm that no one could possibly care about. The Silver Surfer is an interesting character (voiced here by Lawrence Fishburn) who threatens to shake things up with his space alien aesthetics & threats of world destruction, but the movie is largely uninterested in this line of thought.

What it is interested in is repeating itself. Rather than trying to tell a worthwhile story about its titular villain , Rise of the Silver Surfer aims to tell more goofy jokes (with even fewer that land) and make room for more nonsensical asides, like in a sequence where Mr. Fantastic & The Thing both bust moves on the dance floor at a bachelor party for that all-important wedding, making me question the value of living another day . . . or at the very least watching another Fantastic 4 movie ever again. Besides some surprise cameos from folks like Brian Posehn & Kerry Washington (not to mention a not so surprise cameo from Stan Lee as himself, even though he played a mail man in the first film), Lawrence Fishburn’s competent voice work, and a needless sideplot where the 4’s powers are switched around in a gag that felt hokey even for Scooby-Doo (2002), there’s just really not much to distinguish this film from the first. It feels like an exact repeat of the not-at-all satisfying formula that came two years before, complete with yet another gag where Jessica Alba is left naked in public, complaining “Why does this always happen to me?” It’s a moment almost existential in its pleading desperationg, prompting me to ask it of myself as a member of the movie-going public. Why?, indeed Jessica. Why?

Fant4stic (2015)

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twostar

Although Corman’s Fantastic 4 film is the adaptation most widely known for its troubled production, the version that’s currently running in the theater may one day give it a run for its money. Although director Josh Trank won a lot of superhero fans over with his debut film Chronicle, they’ve quickly abandoned ship with the release of his much higher profile follow-up. To give you some perspective on just how much critical abuse the latest Fantastic 4 film is receiving, just take into consideration that it currently boasts a dismal 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the much more infamously reviled (and not even officially released) Corman movie is carrying a 33% on the same site. According to Trank, the film’s problems could mostly be blamed on studio interference after 20th Century Fox reportedly hijacked the production in order to, in their eyes at least, limit damages & save face. It’s difficult to say if the final product would have been more successful if it were left completely in Trank’s hands, but there’s definitely enough going for it that indicates a decent Fantastic 4 film was at some point in the works here before it was hideously derailed. Trank claims that his original, unaltered cut of the film was a much better product than what was delivered, but that remains to be seen.

What actually reached theaters is not an entirely shoddy film, however. At least not in the first half. The beginnings of 2015’s Fant4stic (hey, if they’re going to spell their shit that way on the ads, they have to live with it) feels like a kids’ movie in a way very much unlike how Corman’s film did. The idea of children getting in over their heads while building teleportation devices in their garage using stacks of N64s and other dated electronics calls to mind a wonder-struck Spieldbergian kids’s flick or maybe Joe Dante’s Explorers or JJ Abrams’ Super 8. Much like with a lot of recent non-MCU superhero films, though, Trank’s Fant4stic succumbs to the mood-spoiling temptations of post-Dark Knight grittiness. During an early scene, The Thing’s family name “Grimm” flashes in neon, serving as an early warning of the Nolanisms to come. It might as well have read “Gloomm” or “Broodd”.

As the Spieldbergian tykes transform into disgruntled teenage nerds, the film gradually became a slog of very sciency lab montages, who-cares struggles with military figureheads, and knowing looks of teenage lust & self-hatred. This transformation wouldn’t be so bad if it actually built to something significant, but the film completely derails after the 4’s superpower-gaining transformation scene and never really gets started in any significant way. In short, it’s a total nonstarter. By the end credits, reminders of flashes of promise in the film’s cast, which included Miles Teller, Tim Heidecker and (voice of Homer Simpson) Dan Castanella feel so distant that they’re almost unbelievable. I was left in the darkened theater with one all-consuming thought: “What happened?”

The two characters that are seemingly hardest to get right on film are The Thing & Dr. Doom. Part of what makes the newest Fantastic 4 film so frustrating is that it gets them both so horribly wrong. The Thing’s 100% CGI body is much more of a yawn than his practical effects looks in the earlier films & his silly/infamous “It’s clobbering time!” catchphrase is one of the Nolan-spoiled elements in play, as it is delivered by a physically abusive family member (whereas in the other film’s it’s first heard as a cheeky action movie one-liner or through the speakerbox of an action figure). Also bungled here is Doom. In all craptastic four films listed here, Doom is burdened by the prolonged build of the origin story format and, thus, afforded very little time to rock his metal face & hooded cape look. He gets the most screentime in Corman’s film, but even then he’s often obscured by that behind-the-chair Dr. Claw angle. In the 2015 version, since Doom isn’t shown in his full glory until very late in the film, audiences mostly know him as an angry Redditter type, the kind who rarely bathes & is very concerned with the “ethics in gaming journalism” or whatever. He’s grotesquely misused.

Perhaps the absurdity of Stan Lee’s & Jack Kirby’s collaborative aesthetics are just too at-war with our current Dark Knight gloominess. The most enjoyable moments of the latest Fantastic 4 film are when it reverts back to the childlike wonder wholeheartedly embraced in Corman’s adaptation. There’s even a couple full-on goofy moments, like with Johnny Storm’s X-treme love of Fast & Furious style street racing, or the way Sue Storm’s energy shield is at one point employed as a Hamster Ball of Justice. For the most part, though, the movie is sank by a crushing lack of imagination despite its high concept & well known characters. Watching the Fantastic 4 waste their time in the alternate greenscreen universe of Planet Zero or buck against the tedium of government interference is way more of a chore than it should be, very far removed from the unhinged silliness that made Corman’s film mostly enjoyable. I don’t think the 8% score on the Tomatometer is accurately indicative of the film’s overall quality, as it was a much better picture than the X-Treme branding of 2005’s picture & its weak echo of a sequel, but it does reflect a frustration I personally felt. The first half held so much promise. The second delivered so, so little.

-Brandon Ledet

The Comedy (2012)

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fourstar

Throwing down the gauntlet in its opening shots, The Comedy begins with a sexlessly homoerotic dance party. Naked schlubs grind against each other to a sensual R&B soundtrack, pouring cheap beer down their pale, soft bodies, tucking their genitals between their legs. The last image before the title card is a flash of Tim Heidecker’s scrotum. The scene is devoid of sex appeal because the characters aren’t into what they’re doing. The ritual is a joke inspired by alcohol-fueled late night weirdness. The characters are governed by their sense of irony and the joke isn’t nearly as funny as they think it is.

Even The Comedy’s title is ironic. The same behavior Tim Heidecker usually employs for absurdist humor is weaponized here for a scathing indictment of a generation of scumbags whose entire personalities are affectations. Heidecker’s protagonist makes a sport out of saying things he presumably doesn’t mean. He drunkenly defends Hitler as a flirtation tactic, muses about his terminally ill father’s prolapsed anus, and loudly insults a Catholic church as his degenerate friends blow out prayer candles and roughhouse on the pews. Playing an overgrown, affluent child, Heidecker drifts through menial jobs that would suit a teenager on summer break out of boredom rather than necessity. He manipulates people with his wealth in almost Cheap Thrills levels of cruelty. He pinches a sleeping woman’s eyelids when he’s ready for her to wake. He is more toddler than man and it’s genuinely tragic when he admits that he’s 35 years old. The film doesn’t allow much room for sympathy, though, as it’s gradually revealed that he’s less of a lost, listless soul and more of a spoiled brat & racist prick.

Through a few minor signifiers, like the protagonist’s affinity for the Williamsburg neighborhood and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the movie specifies its exact target: the aging American hipster. This is not the broad definition of “hipster” that applies to almost anyone relatively young & discerning. It’s a very specific subsect of rich kids who speak & act exclusively through ironic detachment. It was brave of Heidecker to lend his Tim & Eric brand of humor (including longtime cronies Eric Wareheim & Gregg Turkington) to such a brutal impeachment of a group that likely overlaps with his established audience. Injecting Tim & Eric’s anti-humor into real human interactions leaves their characters looking like pampered shitheads as others blankly stare at them with disgust and exhaustion. The Comedy is a melancholy, unforgiving portrait of ironic toddler men. It’s not the kind of movie where a lesson is learned. The privileged don’t get their comeuppance. No one is punched in the mouth, even when they truly deserve it. Instead, they float on unchallenged, intoxicated, and refusing to engage with a sincere existence. Just like in real life.

The Comedy is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Brandon Ledet