Thursday, May 24, 2012

My “God Bless America” / “The Secret World of Arrietty” Double Review!

One’s a heartfelt family-friendly adventure, and the other is about killing people that enjoy heartfelt family-friendly adventures. So which niche-market, limited release flick deserves your attention the most? 


A few weeks ago, I took a trip down to the local drive-in, which I proclaimed was going to be my new “summer home” for this season’s cinematic offerings. Well, just a few hours after my initial voyage to that “summer home,” some dude that was well-versed in karate got shot and killed there, so, yeah, give me just a little bit of time to decide how long it will be before I return there. And seeing as how they’re doing a screening of “Return of the Living Dead” with pro wrestling matches featuring movie monsters before that in a few weeks, it looks like it’s not going to be as long a wait as I originally imagined.

Alas, even in tragedy there is unexpected beauty, which for me, manifested itself in the opportunity to check out two extremely different limited-release movies at two of Atlanta’s lesser-heralded movie dens.

If you’re a movie snob in the ATL, you’ve no doubt been to the Plaza theater a couple of jillion times over the years. Well, yank that REO Speedwagon shirt right off my back, because despite being a pretentious douche in every sense of the word, I’ve never actually seen a movie at that particular venue before. And all I can say is…man, I really, REALLY wish I would’ve brought my camera with me.

For one, the lobby is plastered with classic movie posters, of everything from “The Evil Dead” to “Showgirls.” But the best part - and believe you me, this fact alone will inspire many, many return visits on my part - was the in-house arcade, which featured a staggering number of old-school coin-op classics that, somehow, were still in working condition. Finding a playable “Defender” cabinet these days is about as likely uncovering an attractive female in a comic book store, and not only did the Plaza have that, they had it right next to a “Ms. Pac-Man” AND “Bust-a-Move” unit. If you happen to be standing in line there one night, and it sounds like the guy behind you has about fifty pounds of loose change in his pockets, that’s probably me waiting to get my Taito on.

Now, what did I see on my virgin run to the Plaza, you may be asking? Well, just your typical social-satire about a cross-country killing spree, I suppose…and if I see a better movie all summer, I’d quantify myself as one lucky duck.

God Bless America
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Year: 2011


“God Bless America” is a movie that, thematically, covers the same ground covered by a litany of films, from “Bonnie and Clyde” to “Heathers” to “Natural Born Killers.” The variable here is that the film is anchored around a hatred of United States popular culture as opposed to the social order itself, and director Bobcat Goldthwait, smartly, decides to play the movie mostly for dark comedy. And when I say “dark comedy,” I mean it, as within the first 10 minutes of the film, we have a scene featuring the main character revealing in the aftermath of an exploded baby.

Yes, yes, we’ve seen a million, billion social satires about guys “just not being able to take it anymore,” from “Falling Down” to “Fight Club” to the insanely underrated 2007 flick “He Was A Quiet Man.” What Goldthwait’s film does differently, however, is target the insulting banality and crudeness of contemporary American existence. Whereas the aforementioned films were infuriated by the socioeconomic underpinnings of consumer culture, this movie is downright pissed about our low standards for entertainment, eschewing barbs about Starbucks and credit unions for a literal all-out assault on “American Idol” and “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The targets in “God Bless America” - and I use the term “targets” here in just about the most hyper-literal sense you can imagine - run the gamut from racist Tea Baggers to the homophobic Fred Phelps clan to all of those snooty, spoiled teenage hyenas on shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” Over the course of 90 minutes, Joel Murray (Billy’s brother, if he looks somewhat familiar to you) and his high-school-aged accomplice (played by Tara Lynne Barr, who may or may not be related by Roseanne, but I haven’t found the time to Google it yet) trek across the country, putting various caps in assorted asses of reality TV starlets, waffle-eating chi-mos and people that can’t keep their fat yaps shut in movie theaters; alike avenging angels for the YouTube generation, they do their part to rid the American consciousness of the vapid, the idiotic and the rude, all the while bantering back and forth about why they hate “Juno” and love Alice Cooper (which makes this the second film released this summer that features the pioneering shock-rocker as a pivotal plot dynamic.)

Not everything the film sets out to achieve necessarily works, and there are some doldrums that kick in here and there, but ultimately, “God Bless America” is one of the most enjoyable, unique and, periodically, unsettling experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in quite awhile. The film’s overall atmosphere is gonzo enough to take the sting out of most of the on-screen mayhem, but rest assured, if you’re up for some soul-churning violence, this movie delivers it in buckets. There is a pervasive unpleasantness that permeates the entire picture, making it this weird bastard amalgamation of “Taxi Driver” and “American Psycho.” You’ll feel like a degenerate for laughing at most of what you see, and when you don’t laugh? Well, odds are, that will make you feel like an even bigger one.

A lot of the humor in the movie is extremely heavy-handed, but it pretty much has to be. There’s nothing subtle about the material the film mocks, so I really don’t see why the film would have to skewer the material in a more skillful manner, anyway. The monologues and socially-conscious dialogue may get to some people, but in a summer season loaded with thoughtless action vehicles and mega-budget franchise flicks, it’s probably about as deep and probing the seasonal slate of movies is going to get in regards to the follies of modern American culture.

It’s hard to call “God Bless America” a classic-in-the-making, but I do feel quite comfortable in labeling the film as a “miniature-classic” in regards to what it set out to accomplish. Not all of the pieces fit, and it’s not a perfect film in any regard, but holy hell, if you want an abrasive, unrestrained social satire that tears apart post 9/11 pop culture, I can’t think of a single film that’s done so better than Goldthwait’s mini-masterpiece of confrontational comedy.

Now, raise your hand if you, too, thought that this year’s ballsiest, most outrageously enjoyable comedy was going to be directed by an “Eek! The Cat” voice actor?

MY SCORE: A

Where a fiver gets you a ticket for you and your ladyfriend AND enough change leftover to score some Sour Skittles and a medium sized Mr. Pibb

Well, “God Bless America” surely demonstrated itself as an aberrational summer-offering must-see, but what if you’re operating on a tighter budget and can’t really afford to see niche interest flicks of the like without selling a pint or two of your own plasma? Well, if you’re ever close by Marietta’s “The Picture Show,” you really don’t have to worry.

“The Picture Show” is basically a poor-person’s theater, where you can catch movies that were zipped out of mainstream theaters several months ago for absurdly low ticket prices (as in, a buck fifty, folks.) Clearly, there are a lot of cheap-os in the metro-Atlanta area, because I have NEVER seen a theater that crowded since 2008. And their arcade was pretty balling too, as it featured both “Marvel vs. Capcom 2” and “Rampage: World Tour” cabinets - surely, things you aren’t going to be seeing at most movie houses you visit.

So, what movie did I select as my economically efficient companion piece to “God Bless America?” Well, would you believe a quality Walt Disney offering that WASN’T produced by the guys at Pixar? Read on, my friend, do read on…

The Secret of Arrietty
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Year: 2010


I’ve never really been a big anime fan. In fact, I guess that’s my one massive, glaring weak spot when it comes to contemporary cinema - I just don’t know a damn thing about Japanese animation.

That said, I’ve seen a few movies, and was genuinely moved by a couple of them, such as the masterful 1988 release “Grave of the Fireflies.” That said, when it comes to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli - considered by just about everybody to be the Walt Disney of anime - I really have nothing to say on the matters at all.

As such, I went in to “The Secret World of Arrietty” with a very loose set of expectations. While it probably isn’t the greatest animated feature to come out over the last couple of years, I still enjoyed it a tremendous deal - even if I may or may not have yanked away some handicapped dude’s cane while stumbling my way into the darkened auditorium (true story, my friends, true story.)

If you grew up in the late 1990s, you may recall a film called “The Borrowers.” It was a product-placement strewn family fantasy movie starring John Goodman about a bunch of action-figure sized people that ran around this one kid’s house stealing ice cream and batteries, ultimately helping him thwart an evil developer from evicting him from his home. Well, “Arrietty” is a movie based on the same story, although transplanted to Japan, with a couple (OK, a lot) of additional changes.

The premise of the film is simple enough, I suppose. There’s a family of miniature people (complete with a father that bares more than just a passing resemblance to Clint Eastwood) that are living on the periphery of a house inhabited by a kid with a heart condition, his aunt and his maid. One day, the kid sees them while they’re trying to steal some tissues, and from there, the family has to make a call as to whether they should up and bolt from the hinterlands or risk being spotted by the human population traipsing around the place.

It’s a very uncomplicated idea for a movie, and that, effectively, is what makes it work. As with all animated movies, the visuals are really half the story, and the imagery in “Arrietty” is absolutely breathtaking. The 2D dynamic gives the film a vibe that is both traditional and contemporary, with exquisitely detailed backgrounds and some of the most beautiful foliage scenes you’ll probably ever see in cartoon form. The fact that the story is so strong - and completely antithetical to mainstream American animation - just adds to what is already an impressive feature. Especially noteworthy is the sense of scale the movie evokes - odds are, you won’t see a film with a better presentation of height and depth this year, be it animated or otherwise.

There’s a certain sensitiveness to the film that you won’t see in this year’s slate of computer-animated, guaranteed-blockbusters like “Brave” and “Frankenweenie.” The film - alike a lot of anime features - moves at this slow tempo, with characters that seem far more frail and human than the characters we are accustomed to seeing (even if, technically, the characters aren’t exactly human, but whatever.) The film has a very lyrical quality to at, as it unfurls like a poem as opposed to a slam-bang, hyper-active 3D opus for the ADD crowd. The movie will probably bore the younger ones out there, but I thought it was more captivating and engaging as a narrative without all of the claptrap we’re told is necessary in modern kids’ movies.

The film’s lack of sensationalism is such a refreshing change of pace from the myriad “Madagascars” and “Ice Ages” that seem to fill cineplexes year-in, year-out. With “Arrietty,” not only are you getting a downright gorgeous visual experience, you’re also getting a fun, humorous and, perhaps most importantly, heartfelt flick that feels warmer and more alive in two dimensions than most 3D pictures can ever dream of.

Is it on par with the absolute best Pixar flicks, like “Toy Story 3” and “Wall-E?” Eh, I wouldn’t go that far, but “Arrietty” is definitely one of the finer animated movies to get a moderately wide scale release over the last few years, and a movie you definitely need to check out if you have a wispy longing for traditional, 2D animation.

MY SCORE: A-




Well, there you have it - two outstanding (albeit completely divergent) movies experienced at two outstanding (albeit completely divergent) theaters. While a lot of you may have plans for some serious I-MAXing this summer, I would really, really recommend giving both of these venues a try (and most definitely, both movies, seeing as how they’re forty five trillion times better than “Battleship” and “The Vow,” both of which, sadly, are most likely going to out-gross “Arrietty” and “God Bless America” by almost that exact figure.)

Oh, and if you see me at either theater, give me a heads-up; it’s been wayyy too long since I’ve straight up schooled a fool on “Tekken 2” in public as it is…

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